Hurricane Isaac brings flooding outside New Orleans' levees

Swift Water Rescue Team members save stranded employees of radio station WQRZ in Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Wednesday. Isaac drove inland a wall of water nearly 11 feet high.

Associated Press

Swift Water Rescue Team members save stranded employees of radio station WQRZ in Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Wednesday. Isaac drove inland a wall of water nearly 11 feet high.

New York Times

NEW ORLEANS

Seven years to the day that Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures unleashed a deluge of devastation, Hurricane Isaac brought its own distinctive mode of destruction, drenching the upper Gulf Coast not with a quick blow but with an unremitting smothering. It pummeled the Mississippi Coast with a series of roundhouse jabs, while suffocating southern Louisiana under its maddening pace. On its crawl up from the coast, Isaac dumped more than a foot of rain in some places and shoved a violent storm surge that brought back the terrible old images of 2005: people marooned on rooftops, rescue workers breaking into attics with axes and the rescued clutching what little they had left. Only this time, it wasn't in New Orleans.

The worst-hit part of the coast was Plaquemines Parish, the finger of land that follows the Mississippi River from Orleans Parish out into the Gulf of Mexico, and the place where both Isaac and Katrina first made landfall.

Fears that a gulf-side levee would be overtopped by Isaac's massive surge were well-founded. Many of those on Plaquemines Parish's east bank who ignored Monday's order to leave were forced into their attics when the gulf poured in, filling up the bowl between the levees with up to 14 feet of water.

Dozens of people had to be pulled to safety by rescue workers and neighbors. As of Wednesday evening, water was beginning to creep up the west bank of the parish as well, prompting officials to go door to door to evacuate what is effectively the bottom two-thirds of the parish.

"We've never seen anything like this, not even Katrina," said a visibly rattled Billy Nungesser, the parish president, in a briefing to reporters.

The same theme was repeated everywhere, by Kim Duplantier, a school principal whose home in Plaquemines had survived multiple hurricanes but was filled to ruin with water on Wednesday; by the mayor of Grand Isle, La., a coastal community flooded and cut off from the mainland; and by A.J. Holloway, the mayor of Biloxi, Miss., who now wishes he had ordered people to leave.

The skepticism with which Gulf Coast residents, including Holloway, viewed Isaac — which was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm by midafternoon on Wednesday — proved treacherous.

In New Orleans, the decision by most residents to stay did not turn out to be disastrous. Trees were down across the city, and streets flooded, and three-quarters of the city was without power, as it will be for several days for more than 600,000 across the state, until the wind dies down enough for utility workers to come in. But despite a few nervous moments, the city's all but finished $14.5 billion flood protection system seems to have worked.

Outside the city, severe flooding was widespread as Isaac sat on the coast. The National Hurricane Center expected the storm to drop up to 25 inches of rain in some areas. Officials said Wednesday night that they were working to evacuate up to 3,000 people from floodwaters in the St. John the Baptist Parish, about 30 miles west of New Orleans. Tornado warnings were also in effect in several Mississippi counties.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Wednesday that more than 4,000 people were in shelters across the state, and that 5,000 members of the National Guard had been deployed to help in response efforts. What is perhaps most remarkable about the storm is that so far, only one fatality related to the storm has been reported.

"Initially the storm only being a tropical storm instead of a hurricane, many people, especially the people who live down there, didn't have a whole lot of concern," said Deano Bonano, an aide to a parish council member, referring to the town of Lafitte, which is outside the levee. By Wednesday afternoon, the bayou that splits the town was rising so rapidly that the scores if not hundreds were facing potentially days of being cut off from the world.

"I think everyone was surprised by this," said Denny Mecham, the director of the new Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, which was inches from taking in water. "They try to prepare you, but for people who are used to a Cat. 3 or Cat. 5, this doesn't seem like much," she said. "Everyone was saying, 'We'll be open by Thursday morning.' Well, this is not how this one is turning out."

The same calculus was relied upon in Plaquemines Parish, whose residents are almost by definition hardy and self-reliant. Shrimpers, oystermen, ranchers and workers in the oil patch live together on this stretch of coastline divided by the Mississippi River nearly from head to foot, and they have been through it all: multiple hurricanes and the worst of the BP oil spill.

Solutions to getting the water out of the east bank of Plaquemines, which could take days to drain, are not straightforward. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is rounding up portable pumps from Baton Rouge and elsewhere that can be used to pump floodwaters into the Mississippi River, but such pumps are slow.

Nungesser, with the support of Jindal, said that the plan was to punch holes in the gulf levee to speed up the draining, as they did after Hurricane Gustav in 2008, and that a team could begin doing that as early as this afternoon.

Officials warned that the risks were far from over, as flooding was a threat not only along the coast but in mid-Louisiana, upstate Mississippi and the drought-starved regions north. On Wednesday afternoon, Isaac was flooding towns farther inland with its unceasing rain, and was far from finished with southern Louisiana and the Gulf coast

"There is another half of the storm to go for most people who have already begun to experience it," FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said on a conference call with journalists. "For some folks in the path, the event and the weather haven't even begun."

Hurricane Isaac brings flooding outside New Orleans' levees 08/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 2:58am]

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