Hurricane Isaac charged ashore near the mouth of the Mississippi River Tuesday night with 80 mph winds and a storm surge that forecasters feared could reach 12 feet — a test of the improvements made to New Orleans' levee system after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Isaac, which at one point sped across the Gulf of Mexico at more than 15 mph, downshifted to only 8 mph before its ragged eye made landfall at 7:45 p.m. EDT about 95 miles from New Orleans. Forecasters say the massive storm, a Category 1 that stretched 200 miles wide, will be a major rainmaker, and the slower it moves the more rain it will dump. Some areas could see 20 inches.
Florida Panhandle beaches were getting pounded by crashing waves and high winds. Several counties in the Panhandle were under tropical storm, tornado and flash food warnings and watches throughout the night.
After making landfall, Isaac flicked high-powered storm bands toward Mississippi and New Orleans throughout the evening. Gusts were measured at more than 100 mph in some areas. By late Tuesday, more than 230,000 homes and businesses had lost power in southeastern Louisiana.
The brunt of Isaac was expected to push through New Orleans sometime after midnight — seven years to the day after Katrina launched its assault on the city.
Though residents may get some idea of the damage with the light of morning, the storm may stew over the Gulf Coast for several days.
The response from residents and tourists along the Gulf Coast ranged from deadly serious to I-could-care-less comic.
Some residents left town because they feared a disaster akin to Katrina, even though Isaac wasn't nearly as formidable a storm and the levees that gave way in 2005 have been strengthened with a $14.5 billion, 133-mile ring of levees, flood walls, gates and pumps.
"I don't really trust the levees," said Robert Washington, who planned to evacuate from his home in the Ninth Ward along with his wife and five children. "I don't want to take that chance. I saw how it looked after Katrina back here."
Bars, restaurants and shops across the city were shuttered, but the French Quarter had a pulse that was missing in other districts, even as the wind picked up around dark.
Olde Nawlins' was serving up fried shrimp and crawfish fettuccine to a crowd that was a bit bigger than a normal Tuesday night. A handful of bars pitched "hurricane party" on sandwich signs.
On Bourbon Street, a man who had fashioned a shirt and skirt out of trash bags climbed atop a convertible Jeep filled with college-age boys and performed a sexual dance while blowing a whistle. A small crowd stopped to watch and shouted for more.
New Orleans wasn't the only area in danger.
Tens of thousands of people were told to leave low-lying areas, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes. In Houma, a city southwest of New Orleans, people filled a municipal auditorium-turned-shelter.
Evacuations were ordered in Mississippi's coastal counties and its 12 shorefront casinos were ordered closed.
The Palace Casino Resort asked its two remaining customers to leave at 8 a.m., said manager Keith Crosby, manager.
"Like any retail business, you can't replace a day of lost revenue," Crosby said. "At the same time, we had 32 feet of water during Katrina. So letting employees go home is a no-brainer."
Fifteen minutes inland, Michael Morris, 49, smoked a Camel cigarette and lounged in pajama pants on the front porch of his double-wide.
"If it gets bad enough, I'll sit on this porch. I built this porch, so I know it's sturdy," said Morris, a roofer. "I like a good storm, not a killer storm."
Times staff writers Ben Montgomery and Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press and the New York Times.