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A day of decisions on the Gulf Coast as Isaac roars closer

WAVELAND, Miss. — For the past four days, since the storm started spinning toward this little blue-collar town on the gulf, Peggy Bourgeois has tried to keep the tears at bay with Dewar's Scotch and Xanax. It doesn't always work.

Hurricane Camille in 1969 destroyed her house, left only the front porch steps and a pile of rubble. Her father rebuilt. Then came a house fire, and he went to work again. Then, seven years ago tomorrow, Hurricane Katrina scrubbed the land clean. Her dad was 87 the last time he hammered the boards together.

"We would be homeless if we lost this house," said Bourgeois, 59, watching the water from her front porch about 60 miles east of New Orleans. "Me, my brother, my daughter and my granddaughter. We'd have no place to go."

Monday was a day of decisions, though, of sputtering questions and second guesses from Biloxi to Baton Rouge — and of course in New Orleans — as Hurricane Isaac's target became more clear.

Though Isaac may not be the same caliber of storm as Katrina, forecasters say it will summon up to 12 feet of surge and 18 inches of rain when it makes landfall sometime late today.

So Bourgeois packed her clothes and keepsakes, including two big photographs of the old house before and after Camille, and placed them by the back door so she could go quickly. She remembers Katrina, when they wheeled bodies from the house up the road, when CNN's Anderson Cooper showed up with his cameramen. She'll be ready.

Up and down the coast on a beautiful Monday, there was panic and playfulness, defiance and dread, as the people who live here negotiated their contracts with the water again. They boarded over windows and booked motel rooms, lowered flags and took down flower baskets. They packed bags and kept an eye on the television for the latest. Some just stood on the seawall and stared.

"Nobody knows what to do," said Dotsie Cook, 42, of Waveland. "The TV didn't tell us what Katrina was going to do, and it wiped us all off the map and now we don't know what the hell to think. We don't trust them anymore. So I just go with my gut."

By 11 p.m. Monday, Isaac was a strengthening tropical storm on the brink of becoming a hurricane, with sustained winds whipping at 70 mph.

It was 190 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and was traveling at 10 mph.

Forecasters said it could come ashore as a Category 1 hurricane with winds of up to 95 mph. New Orleans was smack in the middle of the forecast track.

The Florida Panhandle was no longer in the forecast cone, but forecasters said the storm's outer edges still could batter the northern part of the state with 15 inches of rain and a 6-foot storm surge.

The storm is not expected to be as powerful as Katrina, which was a Category 3, and New Orleans has since toughened the levee system that failed it in 2005.

"It's going to be all right," said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Still, officials were evacuating nearby low-lying communities not protected by the levees. Federal emergency planners, who were caught flat-footed by Katrina, were getting supplies into place — 1 million liters of drinking water, 436,000 meals, 2,000 cots, 4,600 blankets — in warehouses in Alabama and Florida.

A mandatory evacuation wasn't ordered for New Orleans, but emergency planners said if people wanted to leave, they should do so right away.

Some New Orleans residents listened.

"You can't predict God's work. This is nerve-wracking," said Linda Grandison, who waited three days on a bridge for a helicopter rescue after her family's home was flooded in Katrina.

She was packing up and leaving Monday to stay with her mother in a suburb that didn't flood in Katrina.

"I hate leaving my house, worrying if it's going to flood or get looted," she said. "But I'm not going to stay in the city again."

About 65 miles to the east in Pass Christian, Miss., people also have learned lessons by virtue of existence on a strip of volatile land. If they forget, there are two slabs planted at a park to remind them. Etched in stone are the names of the 75 victims of Camille and the 28 killed by Katrina.

Nearby, Chase Moseley, a political consultant, intended to be in Tampa for the Republican National Convention. Instead he stood on the roof of his beautiful 1890s home and hung plywood over windows.

Katrina's storm surge ruined his roof. Neighbors who rode it out in their attics told Moseley that the water licked his porch. He's not taking chances.

Over in Biloxi, Miss., the city canceled its Katrina anniversary events to prepare for Isaac. The strip along the Bay of Biloxi was serene. The lukewarm water was still and gray, but a light breeze ruffled the trees and dusted up the powdery sand.

James Pitt, 32, and Marsha Stuart, 45, alone on the beach late Monday afternoon, set up neon beach chairs, blared country music and dug metal rods into the sand to play horse shoes. Gusts of wind threw off their otherwise perfect aim, they joked.

"We work every day, so since we have off we thought we might as well come out and play," said Pitt, who said his employers at the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula had released workers in case they want to evacuate.

"It's not going to be like Katrina," said Stuart, an Ingles grocery store employee. "We're going to ride it out."

Inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, many patrons said they had immediate plans to hit the road. Erica Chandler, 31, said she and her uncle planned to start their drive to their home in Birmingham within the hour.

"This is dead compared to how it usually is," she said, raising her voice over the jingle of the slots.

Owners at McElroy's Harbor House Restaurant and Marina, which was destroyed during Katrina and then rebuilt, closed the facility until Thursday, according to the sign on the door. Boat owners moved their boats to Hurricane Hole Lake, where the vessels are tied to trees and to each other, said Jimmy Taylor, a seaman and 61-year-old State Farm agent. Taylor's waterfront home suffered flood damage but minimal wind damage during Katrina. The Isaac forecast isn't dire enough for him to even board his windows, he said.

"This certainly has people concerned, but as of now it's just a tropical storm" he said. "Most are hurricane savvy."

Back in Waveland, Peggy Bourgeois and her daughter Amy Bulot, made final preparations as the sun fell to the West. Amy's 13-year-old daughter, Darian, remembers Katrina. She was four when they fled for higher ground and holed up at the Ramada Inn up the road, where the men drank hot booze and cried over what they'd lost.

"When I'm packing, do I have to pretend it's another Katrina?" Darian asked.

"Yes," her mother said.

"Mama," Darian said, "I can't go through another Katrina."

Information from the Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.

The death toll from Tropical Storm Isaac rose Monday to 19 in Haiti, where disaster officials warned the number could increase and donors continued efforts to assess damage to crops and homes.

Edgard Celestin, spokesman for Haiti's Office of Civil Protection, said four people remained missing.

The deaths included a man who died in a camp when a tree branch fell on him, another young man who was killed by mudslides in the southeast and several killed by electrocution.

Beyond the loss of life, Haitian and humanitarian officials were still trying to assess Isaac's impact as the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations flew reconnaissance flights around Haiti's capital and some of its hardest hit regions. Among them: the southern region where mountain hamlets remained cut off to some assessment teams trying to tally the loss of crops and homes.

A day of decisions on the Gulf Coast as Isaac roars closer 08/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 28, 2012 1:03am]

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