NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hurricane Isaac swallowed parts of the swamps south of New Orleans early Wednesday on its way toward the newly fortified city, as people across the region opted to ride it out despite its torrential rains, 80 mph winds and spooky timing — the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Far less powerful than that 2005 cyclone, Isaac nevertheless had knocked out power to more than 200,000 homes and businesses within hours of making landfall late Tuesday and left deserted streets from the French Quarter to Tampa 480 miles away, where Republican conventioneers pressed on with only a passing mention of the storm’s arrival.
A Category 1 hurricane, Isaac came ashore at 7:45 p.m. EDT near the mouth of the Mississippi River, driving a wall of water nearly 11 feet high inland and soaking a sparsely populated neck of land that stretches into the Gulf of Mexico. The worst was still to come as it zeroed in on New Orleans, 70 miles to the northwest, where forecasters said the city’s skyscrapers could feel gusts up to 100 mph.
Concerns about the wind, however, gave way to fears that the sloppy, slow-moving storm could camp out over Gulf Coast communities for a couple of days and dump up to 20 inches of rain. At least one tornado spun off of Isaac in Alabama.
Tens of thousands of people were told to leave low-lying areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes. Mississippi shut down the state’s 12 shorefront casinos.
The hurricane promised to lend even more solemnity to commemoration ceremonies Wednesday for Katrina’s 1,800 dead in Louisiana and Mississippi, including the tolling of the bells at St. Louis Cathedral overlooking New Orleans’ Jackson Square.
As Isaac neared the city, there was little fear or panic.
“Isaac is the son of Abraham,” said Margaret Thomas, who was trapped for a week in her home in New Orleans’ Broadmoor neighborhood by Katrina’s floodwaters, yet chose to stay put this time. “It’s a special name. That means God will protect us.”
Still, the storm drew intense scrutiny because of its timing — coinciding with Katrina and the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., already delayed and tempered by the storm.
Gulf Coast officials warned of the dangers of the powerful storm but decided not to call for mass evacuations like those that preceded Katrina, which packed 135 mph winds in 2005.
“We don’t expect a Katrina-like event, but remember there are things about a Category 1 storm that can kill you,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, urging people to use common sense and to stay off any streets that may flood.
Tourists and residents alike appeared to have heeded that warning. Shortly after midnight Tuesday in and around the French Quarter, streets normally packed with partiers were deserted, washed by sheets of rain and blown by winds that made hanging building signs swing wildly.
“Nobody is actually out here partying from what I’ve seen,” said Jared Farrell, a parking valet for several hotels.
Tracy Smith, 26, a New Orleans resident who decided that she and her family would be safer at La Quinta hotel near the quarter than at home, ducked outside shortly after midnight to gauge the storm’s severity. Farrell yelled over to her to watch out for a restaurant sign that had become partially detached from a building and threatened to fly off.
Smith, a former deputy sheriff, was trapped for several days with about 100 inmates in a New Orleans jail during Hurricane Katrina, up to her waist in floodwaters. She is still haunted by the experience.
“That’s why I was panicked for this storm,” she said.
Isaac promises to test a New Orleans levee system bolstered by $14 billion in federal repairs and improvements after the catastrophic failures during Hurricane Katrina. But in a city that has already weathered Hurricane Gustav in 2008, many had faith.
“I feel safe,” said Pamela Young, who was riding out the storm in the Lower 9th Ward with her dog Princess in a new, two-story home built to replace the one destroyed by Katrina.
“If the wind isn’t too rough, I can stay right here,” she said, tapping on her wooden living room coffee table. “If the water comes up, I can go upstairs.”
Isaac posed political challenges with echoes of those that followed Katrina, a reminder of how the storm seven years ago became a symbol of government ignorance and ineptitude.
President Barack Obama sought to demonstrate his ability to guide the nation through a natural disaster and Republicans reassured residents they were prepared, all the while readying for the coronation of Mitt Romney. It was unclear what further effects the storm might have on the festivities in Tampa, where Ann Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were the night’s featured speakers, after a day of delays.
There was already simmering political fallout from the storm. Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who canceled his trip to the convention in Tampa, said the Obama administration’s disaster declaration fell short of the federal help he had requested. Jindal said he wanted a promise from the federal government to be reimbursed for storm preparation costs.
“We learned from past experiences, you can’t just wait. You’ve got to push the federal bureaucracy,” Jindal said.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said such requests would be addressed after the storm.
Obama promised that Americans will help each other recover, “no matter what this storm brings.”
“When disaster strikes, we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first,” Obama said at a campaign rally at Iowa State University. “We’re one family. We help our neighbors in need.”
Along the Gulf coast east of New Orleans, veterans of past hurricanes made sure to take precautions.
Bonnie Schertler, 54, of Waveland, Miss., lost her home during Hurricane Katrina. After hearing forecasts that Isaac could get stronger and stall, she decided to evacuate to her father’s home in Red Level, Ala.
“A slow storm can cause a lot more havoc, a lot more long-term power outage, ’cause it can knock down just virtually everything if it just hovers forever,” she said.
Those concerns were reinforced by local officials, who imposed curfews in three Mississippi counties.
“This storm is big and it’s tightening up and it sat out there for 12 hours south of us and it’s pushing that wave action in and there’s nowhere for that water to go until it dissipates,” said Harrison County Emergency Operations Director Rupert Lacy.
All along U.S. 90, families stood at the edge of the waves to gawk. The Mississippi Sound, protected by barrier islands, is often as still as a lake, but Isaac began stirring breakers before dawn, as it pumped a storm tide toward the coast. Police struggled to clear public piers where water was lapping at the boards, and resorted to bullhorns to try to get sightseers to leave the beach.
In Theodore, Ala., 148 people had taken refuge Tuesday in an emergency shelter set up at the town’s high school.
Charlotte McCrary, 41, spent the night along with her husband Bryan and their two sons, 3-year-old Tristan and 1-year-old Gabriel. She spent a year living in a FEMA trailer after Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed her home, and said she still hasn’t gotten back to the same place where she was seven years ago.
“I think what it is,” Bryan McCrary said, “is it brings back a lot of bad memories.”
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