New Orleans officials announced Monday that they've decided not to call for mandatory evacuations in the city ahead of Tropical Storm Isaac's landfall, but evacuations have been ordered for many residents in surrounding parishes, particularly those outside protective levees.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu had said that a mandatory evacuation would not be ordered unless the storm was expected to become a Category 3 hurricane. On Monday afternoon, with forecasts still predicting a Category 1 storm, or possibly a Category 2, he announced that no mandatory evacuation would be ordered.
“There is a point beyond which a mandatory evacuation would not be possible. I believe we’re at that point,” Landrieu said at an afternoon briefing with Gov. Bobby Jindal and a handful of local parish presidents. He added: “We are not expecting a Katrina-like event with breaking the levees.”
PHOTOS: Tropical Storm Isaac
But Jindal cautioned that “this storm will present its own unique set of challenges.” Among those were tropical-storm-force winds and extended periods of intense rain expected to create “localized flooding,” particularly in the so-called lower parishes that extend like narrow fingers into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans.
Jindal said National Guard troops have been mobilized to respond after the storm hits and that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials had marshaled ready-to-eat meals and 50,000 tarps for the troops to distribute.
“Pay attention to the weather updates because this storm, the track could change, the intensity could change,” Jindal warned.
John Young, president of Jefferson Parish, one of the lower parishes, said the biggest threat may not be the storm, but rather the associated storm surge in the gulf that could bring rising water.
He said the Jefferson Parish city of Grand Isle, which faced mandatory evacuation Monday, is “always at ground zero whether for hurricanes or oil spills.”
He said areas of the parish within the levee system “feel we’re much better protected” since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 because of levee improvements. But “the real threat is the rainfall,” he said, because the pump system can drain only an inch an hour.
“It’s not always surviving the storm — a lot of times it’s surviving the aftermath of the storm,” Young said.
Other parish presidents also said they were worried about storm surge and not having levee protection.
Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, said those levees are 3 feet lower than the expected storm surge.
“We will see those levees topped. Hopefully we won’t see too much flooding,” he said.
St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre Jr. said he was concerned many residents have chosen not to comply with the mandatory evacuation order there. Only 61 people had evacuated Monday, he said. The parish has a population of more than 50,000.
“People are not taking the storm seriously enough,” he said.
He noted that after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, it took 11 days to drain storm water from the area.
“Please take this storm seriously, and if you can get out, get out,” he said.
Allison Plyer, deputy director and chief demographer at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, said many people were voluntarily evacuating from the city. But, she said, studies show that many residents, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, might not have the means to do so.
“One of the concerns will be the people who live here and don’t have the available cash or credit to buy a gallon of gas and drive out of town. Those people are much more vulnerable,” Plyer said. “There’s a lot of people here who are likely struggling to leave.”
Although the Lower 9th Ward received much of the nation's attention after Hurricane Katrina, 50 neighborhoods were devastated by flooding after that storm, she said. Of those, Plyer said, about 15 were as poor as the Lower 9th Ward, a few were even poorer, and many were in danger of flooding again as Isaac approached.