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New Orleans, haunted by Katrina, braces for Isaac

The storm remains on a projected path to blow ashore near the city as a Category 2 hurricane.

August 27, 2012|By Matthew Teague, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • As Tropical Storm Isaac approaches in the Gulf of Mexico, a New Orleans family boards a bus to seek safer shelter with relatives.
As Tropical Storm Isaac approaches in the Gulf of Mexico, a New Orleans family… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW ORLEANS — Seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, mayors and governors along the Gulf Coast issued dire warnings about Tropical Storm Isaac as it bore down Monday, building toward hurricane strength.

No one was predicting that Isaac would develop into a catastrophic storm like Katrina, but officials made plans to evacuate low-lying areas and warned coastal residents to prepare for high winds and drenching rains.

Forecasters predicted tropical-storm-force winds Monday night and hurricane-force winds early Tuesday. Isaac was expected to build into a Category 2 hurricane, with sustained winds approaching 100 mph, the National Hurricane Center said late Monday. Katrina slammed into New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, as a strong Category 3 with sustained winds of 125 mph. More than 1,800 people were killed, most in Louisiana.

Isaac is huge — about 350 miles across — and slow-moving, with the potential to linger after landfall and lash the area with rain and high winds. The governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida declared emergencies and activated the National Guard.

As of 11 p.m. EDT Monday, Isaac was 190 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving northwest at 10 mph, with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.

The latest projections showed Isaac making landfall at or near New Orleans late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The center warned of a "significant storm surge" of 6 to 12 feet in Louisiana and as much as 18 inches of rainfall. A hurricane warning was issued for coastal areas between Morgan City, La., and the Alabama-Florida border.

"That brings a high level of anxiety," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a news conference Monday. Isaac has been "bringing back emotions I never thought I'd feel" and reminding the city of "the worst day in our immediate history."

He wasn't the only one remembering the colossal 2005 storm. On Monday evening, when people talked about Isaac, they talked about Katrina. They sounded like street fighters reeling halfway through a one-two punch. Would it hurt as bad the second time?

"The greatest concern is the fear of the unknown," said the Rev. Tony Ricard, who spent years serving the 8th Ward, and now the 7th, across the Industrial Canal from the devastated Lower 9th Ward. "There's a lot of folk who are really scared because after Katrina, we know what could happen."

In the French Quarter, Rob Nonya was panhandling so he and several friends could take the train to Houston. He didn't want to stay for Isaac, as he had for Katrina, becoming trapped for four days.

"We're trying to get a little money for water and to hop a train tonight," Nonya said. "Hopefully we'll make it."

Landrieu urged residents outside the protection of New Orleans' revamped levee system to evacuate.

The administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, told reporters on a conference call Monday not to fixate on New Orleans because Alabama, Mississippi and other parts of Louisiana also could be hit hard.

"This threat is not a point. It's a large area," he said.

President Obama spoke with all three governors and Landrieu on Monday while, throughout the Gulf Coast, residents barricaded homes, flocked to hardware stores for duct tape, boots and batteries and drove family cars to higher ground. As the sun set over New Orleans, cars were bumper-to-bumper on Interstate 10, fleeing inland.

Oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were shutting down, and the storm could threaten coastal refineries in low-lying areas. The ports of New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., were closed, and barge traffic was suspended on lower portions of the Mississippi.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport said it would close Monday night after the last scheduled flight. All Tuesday flights were canceled.

As the evening waned, one of the French Quarter's weatherproof fixtures, street chess champion Jude Acers, folded his table and chair, chained it to a lamppost and threw a backpack over his shoulder. Where would he go?

"Cafe Du Monde, first, for a cup of coffee," he said.

And then?

"I don't know," he said. He shook his head hard enough to shift his signature red beret. "The trauma is just so strong."

Like everyone else here, he was looking toward Isaac, but speaking about Katrina.

Teague reported from New Orleans, Hennessy-Fiske from Los Angeles and Zucchino from North Carolina. Times staff writers Tina Susman and Carolyn Cole in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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