Federal and state emergency plans kicked into high gear late Monday along the Gulf Coast, where communities from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle prepared for the arrival of Tropical Storm Isaac, expected to reach hurricane status in the overnight hours and perhaps come ashore as a Category 2 storm.
Late Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service updated its projections and said Isaac was gaining speed and strength. It declared a hurricane warning stretching from east of Morgan City, La., to the Alabama-Florida border. This warning included metropolitan New Orleans and surrounding communities.
That advisory projected wind speeds around 100 mph near coastal areas of southeast Louisiana and Mississippi within the next 36 hours, meaning Isaac could be a stronger than expected Category 2 hurricane by the time of landfall. Oil companies scrambled to remove workers from offshore oil rigs in the Gulf, and many of the nation’s refiners, who turn Gulf Coast crude oil into gasoline, were either shutting down or slowing operations. The bustling Port of New Orleans was ordered closed.
Isaac approached New Orleans almost seven years to the day that Hurricane Katrina made its second and devastating landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, changing the city and its topography forever.
Mistakes made by federal and state authorities back then now are part of the sordid history of Katrina, and the Obama administration appeared anxious to avoid the slightest of hiccups. Responding to a request from Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, President Barack Obama declared parts of Louisiana a disaster area late Monday. That enables the state to be reimbursed for emergency efforts in 15 coastal parishes.
Obama on Monday held a joint call with Louisiana’s Jindal, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to coordinate emergency response.
Briefing reporters in a conference call, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, said he’d reached out to governments along the Gulf Coast days ago. If Isaac were to directly strike New Orleans, the city can handle a Category 1 hurricane thanks to numerous improvements since Katrina, the FEMA chief said.
“It’s a much more robust system than existed when Katrina came ashore,” Fugate said, warning that communities on the west side of the Mississippi River do not have levees to protect them and are at greater risk. “And, when you start talking six to 13 feet of storm surge, that can be dangerous.”
Bryant told reporters he would be on the Mississippi coast on Tuesday, telling area leaders the state is ready to help with recovery.
“You unfortunately know how to deal with this better than anybody in the nation,” he said Monday. “This storm is as unpredictable as they all are, so we’re going to plan for the worst.”
Federal authorities worried that the early uncertainty about whether Isaac would become a hurricane and where it would come ashore could combine to lull Gulf Coast communities into thinking that Isaac would hit elsewhere.
“We cannot guarantee 100 percent how much it is going to strengthen,” said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center. He cautioned that even if it remains a tropical storm, Isaac’s slow rotation was likely to cause flooding and wind damage along the Gulf Coast, including inland areas.
Heavy rains worried local leaders in southern Mississippi, with as a much as 15 inches of rain expected.
“That becomes a terrible concern for us,” said Rupert Lacy, emergency manager for Harrison County, which includes the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi. “If that rain hits all of Harrison County, that means we are going to have inland flooding.”
Isaac is projected to bring a damaging storm surge. The National Weather Service on Monday projected a surge of six feet to 12 feet in southeastern Louisiana and parts of Mississippi and Alabama. South-central Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle were expected to see a surge ranging from three feet to six feet, and Florida’s west coast may see a surge from a foot to three feet.
Additionally, tropical storm-force winds are expected to extend out more than 200 miles from Isaac’s center, the National Weather Service said. “It’s going to have effects well away from the center of circulation,” warned Fugate.
Adding to Isaac’s risks, the Mississippi River and other waterways are at low levels because of a long and punishing drought. As Isaac comes ashore, the storm is likely to dump lots of rain on areas where the earth is parched. The National Weather Service predicts that as much as 18 inches of rain is possible in areas of southeast Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Heavy rains may provide some relief to low-water levels, but the rainfall is expected to spark flooding and it’ll be difficult for the dry, cracked earth to absorb the rain.
Barge traffic along the mighty Mississippi River will be affected by Monday’s port closure in New Orleans, and the Coast Guard advised commercial and recreational vessels all along the lower Mississippi and its tributaries to get out of harm’s way. Prior to Isaac’s entry into the warm Gulf waters, barge traffic already had been backed up along the Mississippi because of low water levels near Greensville, Miss., that caused barge groundings.
Weather projections show Isaac moving northward over the week and reaching drought-stricken Kansas, Missouri and Indiana by Saturday as heavy rains. Those areas desperately need the rain but may also see flooding, forecasters said.
Scallan reported from Gulfport, Hall from Washington. Miami Herald staff writers Curtis Morgan, Carli Teproff, Carol Rosenberg, Daniel Chang, Christina Veiga and Jacqueline Charles contributed.