2012-08-29 16:46:46

Isaac Soaks Gulf Coast, Tests Levees

NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane Isaac drove water over the top of a levee on the outskirts of New Orleans on Wednesday, but the multibillion-dollar barriers built to protect the city itself after the 2005 Katrina disaster were not breached, officials said.

The slow-moving but powerful Category 1 hurricane was felt along the Gulf Coast, threatening to flood towns in Mississippi and Louisiana with storm surges of up to 12 feet and top sustained winds up to 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour).

"The federal levee system ... is fine," New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu told local radio.

"There are no risks. It is holding exactly as we expected it to and is performing exactly as it should. There are no people on rooftops from flooding that even approximates what happened during Katrina," he said.

Police and National Guard units, many wielding automatic assault rifles, patrolled the virtually empty downtown quarter of the port city, which normally bustles with tourists drawn to its jazz bars, Creole cuisine and French colonial architecture.

Tree limbs and street signs littered the streets and power was cut intermittently throughout the city, but authorities reported no security problems.

"Thus far it's been pretty easy," said Captain Jeremy Falanga of the Louisiana National Guard, who was stationed with troopers in front of the city's convention center. "Not many people are outside, it's pretty buttoned up."

In low-lying Plaquemines Parish, which stretches southeast from New Orleans, emergency officials reported the overtopping of an 8-foot (2.4-meter) high levee between the Braithwaite and White Ditch districts.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said about 2,000 residents of the area had been ordered to evacuate but only about half were confirmed to have gotten out before Isaac made landfall late on Tuesday.

Isaac was wobbling northwestward near six mph, a slow pace that increases the threat of rain-induced flooding.

"On the east bank right now, we have reports of people on their roofs and attics and 12 to 14 foot of water," Nungesser told CNN.

"This storm has delivered more of a punch than people thought," he added.

Plaquemines Parish is cut in two lengthwise by the Mississippi River as it flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Much of it lies outside the greater New Orleans levee system, and construction projects to bolster protection are not complete.

It was not immediately clear how many people may have been stranded in the area, as driving rain and hurricane-force winds prevented a full-scale search.

"The sheriff's deputies are over there but all the roads are unpassable ... We don't know if some people are left behind and now we can't get there and there is no way we can operate a boat or an air boat in these winds," Nungesser said.

Plaquemines Parish public information officer Caitlin Campbell said there were no reports of injuries or deaths.

"The back levee along that area has been overflowing with water since earlier today. Up to 12 feet of water has filled that community from the back levee to the Mississippi River," Campbell said in an email statement.

"Rescue efforts are now in progress. Local residents are rescuing other residents at this time," she said.


Isaac was the first test for the $14.5 billion flood defense system of walls, floodgates, levees and pumps built after Katrina's storm surge. Katrina left large parts of New Orleans swamped and killed 1,800 people, in the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Hundreds in and around New Orleans drowned in 2005 and many survivors waited for days to be plucked from their rooftops by helicopters. New Orleans endured days of deadly disorder and widespread looting.

While most city residents had opted to weather Isaac in their homes, that was no option for the homeless.

"It was wet last night," said Stanley Lancaster, 50, who spent the night under an overhang by the city's convention center. "I'm just going to sit and wait till it stops."

While not nearly as strong as Katrina -- a Category 3 hurricane when it slammed into New Orleans on August 29, 2005 -- Isaac was a threat that authorities had warned repeatedly about underestimating.

Rainfall accumulations, potentially totaling as much as 20 inches in some areas, were expected.

Some 409,000 Louisiana customers of utility Entergy Corp were without power as of Wednesday morning, the company reported. It warned that it would be unable to begin restoring power until winds drop below 30 mph.

Areas affected by power outages included about 60 percent of New Orleans.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Isaac's top sustained winds had weakened slightly to 75 mph and was about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It said hurricane force winds extended outward for 60 miles from the storm's center.

Isaac killed at least 23 people and caused significant flooding and damage in Haiti and the Dominican Republic before skirting the southern tip of Florida on Sunday and heading across the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It spared Tampa, Florida, where the Republican National Convention is being held. But it forced party leaders to reshuffle the schedule and tone down what some might have seen as excess celebration about Mitt Romney's presidential nomination as Gulf Coast residents faced danger.

Oil production in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico nearly ground to a halt and ports and coastal refineries curtailed operations.

Energy companies along the Gulf Coast refining center braced for the storm's impact by shuttering some plants and running others at reduced rates ahead of Isaac's landfall.

Intense hurricanes such as Katrina -- which took out 4.5 million barrels per day of refining capacity at one point -- have flooded refineries, keeping them closed for extended periods and reducing fuel supplies.

This time, though, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that only 12 percent of the Gulf Coast's refining capacity had gone offline. Louisiana usually processes more than 3 million barrels per day of crude into products like gasoline.

Perceptions that the area's oil facilities would not sustain major damage left international benchmark Brent crude little changed in Wednesday morning trading at about $112.75 a barrel.

David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the Miami-based Hurricane Center, cautioned that Isaac was not going away anytime soon.

"We expect it generally to continue moving very slowly through Louisiana today, even into tomorrow. Beyond that, as it begins to weaken we expect it to move into northern Louisiana late Thursday into Friday and then north into Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, that region after that," Zelinksy said.

"We want to stress to everyone that a lot of the effects can be felt well removed from the center," he said.

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