NEW ORLEANS – Isaac, a vast storm that tore through southeast Louisiana on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm after pushing floodwaters over a levee in marshy Plaquemines Parish and forcing the dramatic rescue of dozens of stranded residents.
In New Orleans, the intricate network of levees, pumps and floodgates built since Katrina was performing the way it was designed to, said Rene Poche, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Huge floodgates were clapped shut to prevent storm surges from entering the city, particularly on its vulnerable eastern side.
Many of the rescues were conducted Wednesday by locals who scrambled to aid their neighbors in private boats, while high winds prevented government crews from crossing the Mississippi River. The citizen rescuers were being hailed as heroes in remote Plaquemines, a region known for its shrimp boats and citrus orchards that was hit hard by Katrina.
Even as ferocious winds were ripping through the area, parish officials took the unusual step of ordering the evacuation of 3,000 people on the west bank because of concerns about possible storm surges topping a levee there.
Evacuation orders are usually issued prior to storms, and it’s unclear how many – if any – of the residents who were ordered to evacuate decided to brave the difficult conditions outside and flee. Louisiana National Guard troops were also dispatched to the west bank late Wednesday to transport more than 100 residents from a nursing home to a more secure shelter.
Isaac, which topped out at about 80 mph sustained winds, knocked out power to more than 600,000 homes and businesses across the state, shredded roofs in St. Bernard Parish – one of the hardest-hit locales during Katrina – and toppled trees and a smattering of streetlights in New Orleans. But Isaac appeared likely to spare New Orleans from the devastation wrought in 2005 by the much more powerful Katrina.
Still, armed National Guard troops patrolled the streets, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, warning that looters would face mandatory three-year sentences.
If you loot, you get an orange suit, Landrieu said.
Isaac, which made landfall Tuesday evening near the mouth of the Mississippi River, moved sluggishly Wednesday on a wobbly northwestern route, at times becoming almost stationary and dumping large amounts of rain in isolated areas before moving on.
It was crawling along so slowly that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who skipped the Republican National Convention to oversee the state’s response, said it could remain in the state until Friday morning, and utility officials were warning it may take days to restore power.
The storm is forecast to continue to weaken as it moves through Louisiana and enters Arkansas and the Midwest, where it was expected to provide some drought relief for parched fields.
The storm’s most dramatic impact was felt in the tiny town of Braithwaite, which sits 20 miles southeast of New Orleans and outside the massive ring of federally maintained levees constructed or improved with $14.5 billion allocated by the U.S. Congress after Katrina.
Isaac’s Category 1 wind pushed a 12-foot surge of water over a small locally maintained levee that was partially under construction, parish officials said. As many as 800 homes in the parish may have been damaged, according to a preliminary estimate announced by Jindal.
It’s worse than Katrina in that area, said Plaquemines Parish Councilman Robert Griffin, who represents the flooded area.
Residents launched boats into floodwaters that reached as high as 10 feet to rescue dozens of neighbors. Griffin said residents had been warned for days to get out. He estimated that 1,900 of the area’s nearly 2,000 residents evacuated. The 100 or so who remained did so at great risk to their safety, he said.
That’s been puzzling me all day, he said. Why did they stay?
On a call Wednesday afternoon, National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb cautioned that even as Isaac once again becomes a tropical storm and leaves New Orleans behind, plenty of danger lies ahead, including of flash floods and tornadoes.
For some folks in the path of this, the event hasn’t even begun, Knabb said.