August 29, 2012
Isaac has turned into a full-blown Category 1 hurricane as it rolls toward the US Gulf Coast.
People in four states on Tuesday left boarded-up homes and New Orleans waited nervously behind flood-defence levees strengthened after the devastating Katrina struck exactly seven years ago.
The US National Hurricane Center said the storm, with 130km/h winds, had gained strength as it moved over the warm, open waters of the gulf. It was expected to reach the swampy coast of southeast Louisiana by early Wednesday (local time).
The focus has been on New Orleans, but the impact will be felt well beyond it, especially in expected storm surges of up to 3.5 metres in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The storm's winds could be felt more than 300km from its centre.
The hurricane has churned into the middle of the US presidential election, with Republicans this week meeting nearby in Florida to nominate Mitt Romney to challenge President Barack Obama.
The storm on Monday delayed the planned start of the Republican National Convention. Obama, mindful of how his administration's response to the storm could be judged, spoke on Isaac from the White House on Tuesday morning before departing on a three-state campaign trip.
"Now is not the time to tempt fate," Obama said. "You need to take this seriously."
Although Isaac's approach on the eve of the Katrina anniversary invited obvious comparisons, the storm is nowhere near as powerful as Katrina was when it struck on August 29, 2005. Katrina at one point reached Category 5 status, with winds of more than 250km/h, and made landfall as a Category 3 storm.
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.
"We don't expect a Katrina-like event, but remember there are things about a Category 1 storm that can kill you," Landrieu said.
Federal officials said the updated levees around New Orleans were equipped to handle storms stronger than Isaac. The levees are designed to withstand storm surges as high as 8m in some places.
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."
His neighbourhood, just a few blocks from where the floodwall protecting the Lower 9th Ward broke open, remains largely empty.
Obama has declared a state of emergency in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi. The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport said no flights were scheduled on Tuesday.
The US government said 78 per cent of the oil production in the Gulf of Mexico has been halted in preparation for the storm as companies have evacuated 346 offshore oil and gas production platforms. That's 17 per cent of daily US oil production.
One question haunting locals was how much oil left over from the massive Gulf oil spill in 2010 might wind up on the beaches because of the storm. Experts believe large tar mats lie submerged just off the coast, but no one knows where they are or how many there might be.
Isaac left 24 dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic but caused little damage in the Florida Keys as it blew past.