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As Isaac lingers, New Orleans braces itself -- and hopes for best

August 28, 2012|By Tina Susman and Molly Hennessy-Fiske

NEW ORLEANS -- Tropical Storm Isaac lingered off the coast of southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday morning, with winds at 70 mph and gradually growing stronger.  Forecasters were expecting to reclassify it as a Category 1 hurricane later in the day.

“We’re just waiting for it to decide to strengthen — it’s just taking its sweet time,” said Monica Bozeman, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

In New Orleans meanwhile, roads closed, tours ground to a halt, and the venerable Cafe Du Monde, famed for its beignets and steaming coffee, closed.

PHOTOS: Bracing for Isaac

In a city still haunted by Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall here seven years ago Wednesday, the memories of the failed levees and the deadly floods remained raw. But they also served as reminders of how dire things could become again in low-lying parts of the city if the newly beefed-up system of levees and pump stations faltered under pressure from days of rain and swelling water.

"That's what worries me," said filmmaker John Latier, who came here from Sacramento two weeks after Katrina to help recovery efforts and never left. "We're already under water. It's a matter of basic math. It doesn't matter how much wind we have -- it's the water."

Latier stood on the levee running alongside the river, where a day earlier, cruise ships had peeled out. Behind him, Cafe Du Monde offered a rare sight: closed signs.

Karen Benrud, part of the family that owns the usually jammed eatery, said the decision was made to close until Thursday to ensure employees' safety. Usually the cafe churns out sweets and coffee 24 hours a day.

During Katrina, the cafe was shut down for six weeks. Benrud, who has lived in New Orleans her entire life, said Isaac appeared far less threatening.

"But you're still on edge," said Benrud, noting that people seemed to have learned from Katrina. "In the grocery stores, I sense not panic but just everybody trying to be prepared," she said. "In Katrina, everybody was just running all over. This time, people are calmer and seem to be just stocking up."

Some locals were concerned that people who moved here post-Katrina might not be prepared for a hurricane. Latier said he had given his employees a few days off and that most had opted to leave town. "They don't know how to do a storm," said Latier, who planned to stay despite his relative inexperience riding out hurricanes.

So did Benrud, who said that despite weather and other catastrophes, such as the 2010 oil spill, the family had never considered moving elsewhere.

"One-word answer: never," she said, noting that there are worse calamities to face -- earthquakes, for example. "At least with a hurricane, you have advanced notice," she said.

Latier concurred as he stood eyeing the Mississippi and as clouds moved swiftly across the sky and dropped occasional showers. He admitted to being a bit concerned when he saw nuns leaving a nearby church, boarding buses for higher ground, but he said he had no intention of following.

"New Orleans just becomes a thing you can't leave," Latier said.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal planned to provide a briefing on the state’s hurricane preparedness Tuesday morning, then visit a New Orleans-area canal. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was preparing for a briefing at noon.

First Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin said city officials remain confident in the levees and the rest of the city’s hurricane protection system, revamped with $14.5 billion in repairs after Katrina, including a 26-foot-high, two mile-long wall where surge waters flooded the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina.

“There’s been tremendous investment that has gone into the storm protection system that’s in place today that should be more than enough to protect against the hurricane Isaac will become,” Kopplin said. “The work of the Army Corps of Engineers has been well enough overseen and sourced that we believe it will be enough to protect us.”

As the storm neared, city crews were cleaning catch basins and preparing for post-storm deployment to contend with outages, downed trees, possible flooding and other emergencies, he said.

“The streets are very quiet this morning," he said. "A lot of people have left and those that are here are staying inside for the onslaught to come. This is the calm before the storm."

Isaac had slowed overnight -- essentially parking over the Gulf of Mexico, where it was picking up moisture from the warm water, said meteorologist Bozeman.

That's a bad sign, she told The Times.

“Usually slow-moving storms are the ones that have the biggest rainfall issues,” Bozeman said.

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