New Orleans braced for Hurricane Isaac

Seven years after Katrina lashed Louisiana, killing 1,800, city bracesfor new onslaught from tropical storm, with state of emergency declared

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 August, 2012, 3:55am


Hurricane Isaac bore down on New Orleans last night, seven years after Hurricane Katrina left 1,800 dead.

President Barack Obama, mindful of the bungled handling of Katrina by his predecessor George W. Bush, declared a state of emergency in Louisiana, allowing federal funds and aid to flow to local authorities.

"We're dealing with a big storm," Obama said in a televised statement from the White House yesterday. "Now's not the time to tempt fate," he said. "You need to take this seriously."

Katrina devastated the jazz city on August 29, 2005, and a halting emergency response from the Bush administration was a black mark on his second term in office.

Although Isaac's approach on the eve of the Katrina anniversary invited comparisons, it is not as powerful as Katrina.

The 2005 hurricane reached Category 5 status at one point, with winds of more than 252km/h, and made landfall as a Category 3 storm.

The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Isaac reached hurricane strength late yesterday with maximum wind speeds of 120km/h.

The Miami-based NHC predicted the centre of the storm would be over the Louisiana coast by late yesterday or early today. In New Orleans, the normally bustling French Quarter was eerily quiet on Monday as the first rain fell and winds picked up.

Bored bouncers peered out of empty bars along Bourbon Street as the few die-hard tourists wandered the cobblestones. Many restaurants had closed, and some hotels told guests to check out by midday yesterday.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has recommended voluntary evacuations, urged people to prepare for the worst.

"If you are in a low-lying area and are thinking about evacuating, today is the day to do that," he said. Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not activate a mandatory evacuation for Isaac.

Instead, officials urged residents to hunker down and make do with the supplies they had. Federal officials said the updated levees around New Orleans are equipped to handle storms stronger than Isaac.

The Army Corps of Engineers was given about US$14 billion to improve flood defences, and most of the work is finished.

But anxiety was high, especially in the city's Lower 9th Ward, wiped out by Katrina after floodwalls burst and let the waters rush in.

"I don't really trust the levees," said Robert Washington, who planned to evacuate along with his wife and five children.

"I don't want to take that chance. I saw how it looked after Katrina back here."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said its National Response Co-ordination Centre had been activated.

Mississippi activated 1,500 National Guard troops on Monday and Louisiana issued orders to approximately 4,100 soldiers and airmen in preparation of Isaac making landfall.

States of emergency were in effect in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The NHC warned that Isaac could dump up to 45cm of rain along the Gulf coast and spawn "isolated tornadoes" over central and northwestern Florida.

The US government said 78 per cent of the oil production in the Gulf of Mexico had been halted and 346 offshore oil and gas production platforms and 41 rigs evacuated.

Isaac brought rain and choppy seas to the US coast after battering impoverished Haiti -where 19 people died - and Cuba over the weekend.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press