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As Isaac bears down, New Orleans mayor says city nervous but ready

August 27, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Matthew Teague

Gulf Coast officials attempted to calm the region's residents on Monday, particularly in New Orleans, stressing that they're prepared for the arrival of Tropical Storm Isaac. The storm, expected to become a Category 1 or 2  hurricane, is on track to hit that city on or near the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's arrival.

"That brings a high level of anxiety," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a Monday news conference, adding that the storm has been "bringing back emotions I never thought I’d feel,” reminding him and others of “the worst day in our immediate history.”

“That’s why we want to give a lot of information and make people as comfortable as possible," Landrieu said, reeling off a list of storms and other disasters that have rocked the Crescent City in recent years: Katrina, Ike, Gustav, the BP oil spill.

PHOTOS: Bracing for Isaac

“We are anxious and nervous because you are never sure” what the impact will be, he said, but “based on my confidence in the people of New Orleans, I will say this — I think that we are going to be OK.”

He urged those outside of the protection of the city's levee system to evacuate, but stressed that mandatory evacuations were not in place, and that he did not intend to order them. He said Isaac, a tropical storm expected to become a strong Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane, would have to strengthen to a Category 3 -- the same as Katrina -- to "trigger" mandatory evacuations in the city. That would have to happen within the next few hours before it's too late for people to leave, he said.

“We are getting perilously close to that moment," Landrieu said.

Landrieu said President Obama's office contacted him Sunday, adding that FEMA staff are already in town and that he's been working closely with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. The latter was due to arrive in New Orleans on Monday for an afternoon briefing.

"We are battle-ready," Landrieu said.

Jindal, who held a briefing of his own about the storm before leaving Baton Rouge on Monday, noted that more than 300 charter buses and 120 school buses were prepared to evacuate New Orleans residents if needed. The school buses won't be needed to ferry students, because area schools have been closed in preparation for the storm.

On Monday, the governor urged residents of low-lying areas to consider evacuation, and he warned those in other areas to prepare for possible flooding, electrical outages and downed trees.

“This is a serious storm — people need to take it seriously," he said, telling residents to "hope for the best even as you prepare for the worst."

Landrieu said he had confidence in the city's levee system; that system failed after Hurricane Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, but has since been reinforced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We now have $10 billion in levee improvements. We have coordination that we did not have. I now believe there is nothing this storm can bring us that we are not prepared for,” Landrieu said. The mayor said he's particularly confident in the 26-foot-hgh wall built since Katrina to handle any possible storm surge after the hurricane.

Landrieu urged residents not to panic, but not to become complacent, either,despite the fact that weather in New Orleans was beautiful at the time. The storm had slowed overnight Sunday, but tropical storm-force winds were expected to hit overnight Monday with hurricane-force winds expected Tuesday night.

“You can be fooled. If you are walking outside in New Orleans today, it looks like a really nice day. That is a façade,” Landrieu said. “Many, many parishes are in a state of emergency. We’re all in this together."

New Orleans Council Vice President and former state representative Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson (mother of actress Patricia Clarkson), backed the mayor at the briefing, saying she's confident in his and the city's abilities to weather the storm.

“I feel the most confident as I’ve ever felt in a storm of this type in this city in my lifetime,” Clarkson said.

Streetcars were due to stop running Monday afternoon, schools and government buildings closed, and inmates were evacuated -- with the police chief and sheriff assuring the public that their departments were prepared to respond to events accordingly.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport remained open, but Southwest, American and United were planning to cancel flights Tuesday, a spokesman said at the briefing. Planes could be grounded if winds reach 35 mph late Monday, Landrieu said.

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