By Rick Jervis
NEW ORLEANS -- Predictions of Tropical Storm Isaac making landfall along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday prompted evacuations along a wide area of the region as many residents recalled the devastation of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.
Federal authorities warned of a dangerous storm surge, saying that rising water, not wind, was a major worry. The large, slow-moving storm will push water from the Gulf ashore as well as dumping 18 inches of rain on already saturated land.
Residents began stockpiling food, water and other staples; lines at gas stations were growing; and airlines began canceling flights to and from the area as the size of the storm expanded and officials declared emergencies in four states.
By Monday afternoon, Isaac had sustained winds of 65 mph and was located about 255 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the National Hurricane Center reported. It was moving to the northwest at 14 mph.
The storm is expected to reach hurricane status, with wind speeds of 75 mph, by sometime Monday night. At landfall, which is expected sometime between 11 p.m. Tuesday and 11 a.m. Wednesday, the hurricane should have winds of around 90 mph, which means it should hit as a Category 1 or Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, the hurricane center reported.
The National Hurricane Center predicted Isaac would hit late somewhere along a roughly 300-mile stretch from the bayous southwest of New Orleans to the Florida Panhandle.
Katrina destroyed about 80% of New Orleans and killed about 1,800 people across the Gulf Coast.
"I gassed up -- truck and generator," John Corll, 59, a carpenter, said as he left a New Orleans coffee shop Monday morning. He lived through Katrina in 2005 and was expecting a weaker storm this time, adding that he thinks the levee system is in better shape to handle a storm surge than when Katrina hit. "I think the state and local governments are much better prepared for the storm surge and emergencies," Corll said.
On the Alabama coast, Billy Cannon, 72, was preparing to evacuate with several cars packed, his family and four Chihuahuas from a home on a peninsula in Gulf Shores. Cannon, who has lived on the coast for 30 years, said he thinks the order to evacuate Monday was premature.
"If it comes in, it's just going to be a big rainstorm. I think they overreacted, but I understand where they're coming from. It's safety," he said.
In Grand Isle, a barrier island about 100 miles south of New Orleans, residents latched down homes and drove out boats as a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the island. Isaac's fickle path has made it difficult to advise residents when they should leave and where they should go, councilman Jay LaFont said.
"This has been a really challenging one," he said.
The storm that left eight dead in Haiti and two dead in the Dominican Republic blew past the Florida Keys with little damage and promised a drenching but little more for Tampa, where the planned Monday start of the Republican National Convention was pushed back a day in case Isaac passed closer to the bayside city.
Nearly every major U.S. airline has instituted some sort of flexible rebooking policy for travelers headed to Florida and portions of the Gulf Coast as Isaac tracks in that direction.
Several airlines -- including Delta, United and US Airways -- have now extended their rebooking waivers beyond Florida to other Gulf Coast airports in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Airlines were expected to cancel at least 180 flights on Monday after more than 740 flights were canceled on Sunday. The tally is likely to grow during the next 48 hours.
Amtrak canceled train service in Louisiana for Tuesday and Wednesday. The route that runs from New York to New Orleans would end in Atlanta, while its route from Los Angeles to New Orleans would stop in San Antonio. Amtrak was also suspending part of its rail line between Miami and Orlando.
If it hits during high tide, Isaac could push floodwaters as deep as 12 feet onto shore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and up to 6 feet in the Florida Panhandle, while dumping up to 18 inches of rain over the region, the National Weather Service warned.
Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Monday that he hopes residents have learned from Katrina and will heed calls to evacuate to higher ground.
"We are concerned that people did not learn the lesson about water," Fugate said. "We need people to go now."
Some of the heaviest impact could be in Alabama and Mississippi, he said.
"I know Katrina is first and foremost on everyone's mind because the anniversary is approaching" on Wednesday, Fugate said. "This is not a New Orleans storm. This is a Gulf Coast storm."
In Jackson, Miss., Mayor Harvey Johnson urged residents to prepare for heavy rain and strong wind gusts on Wednesday. Meanwhile, city emergency crews, including law enforcement and public works, are on standby, he said.
"We will continue to monitor the situation and we are prepared to deploy the necessary city resources if and when they are needed," Johnson said in a news release. "We will also share information with citizens through our Code Red alert system as it becomes available."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal strongly encouraged residents Monday not to put off preparations, such as gathering medication, food, water and other supplies. He said that 20 Louisiana parishes were under a hurricane warning and that 23 had declared a state of emergency.
He already called for a state of emergency, and 53,000 residents of St. Charles Parish near New Orleans were told to leave ahead of the storm. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also declared states of emergency.
"Hope for the best as you prepare for the worst," said Jindal during a morning press conference in Baton Rouge. Jindal expressed concern about the storm hovering over areas with high rain volume and winds causing problems, especially in areas known for flooding.
Jindal outlined statewide preparations including moving prisoners out of New Orleans; making about 3,900 beds available in Shreveport shelters; mobilizing 4,000 National Guard troops; and getting state troopers to monitor evacuation routes. He said state offices in Baton Rouge and southern Louisiana would close Tuesday and Wednesday.
Heavy flooding could be devastating to low-lying coastal communities like Vermilion and Iberia parishes in Louisiana, which were heavily damaged by storm surge during Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
"We'll just have to worry about how much rain we'll get and flooding," said Vermilion Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness Director Rebecca Broussard.
Most residents have rebuilt, but not all.
"A lot of people are prepared, but they're some that are not elevated," Broussard said. "They're still waiting for insurance or FEMA money."
Officials with Plaquemines Parish, 10 miles south of New Orleans, were not taking any chances. They ordered a mandatory evacuation for most of the southern part of the parish. Work crews recently raised levees in that area, but they will be no match for a strong surge from Isaac, parish President Billy Nungesser said.
"We don't want to see those people trapped in southern Plaquemines," he said Monday.
Residents across New Orleans tracked weather reports and weighed decisions to stay or go.
Ray Newman, owner of the Chart Room, a French Quarter bar, said it wasn't much of a debate for him: He's staying. He expected brisk business Monday, as locals who are staying congregated at the bar to discuss the storm.
"We stayed open for Katrina, we're definitely staying open for this one," he said.
But many New Orleans residents who lost homes and businesses during Katrina began packing up Sunday and heading out.
"Today, seven years later, it's still fresh on people's minds," said Linda Jackson, president of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association. Television pictures of Lower Ninth Ward residents stranded on rooftops became the lasting image of Katrina.
What to do in the event of a major storm is talked about at monthly homeowners meetings, year-round, Jackson said. Despite having levees 16 feet higher than they were during Katrina, most of the neighborhood's 4,000 residents plan on leaving, she said.
"Today, when we get rain, we get thinking," Jackson said. "I think we're OK, but we're not that OK that we want to stay."
The miles of levees and pumps surrounding the city, which the Army Corps of Engineers spent billions of dollars rebuilding and fortifying after Katrina, make New Orleans a much safer place than it was in 2005, said Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Residents are also better prepared for big storms, having gone through Katrina in 2005 and Gustav, which just missed the city in 2008.
The city will wait until a Category 3 hurricane is forecast before triggering mass evacuation plans and opening shelters, Berni said. Officials were advising residents who planned to stay to prepare for several days without power or water.
"We're much better prepared than we've ever been in our city's history," he said. "Our citizens are battle-tested and have shown resiliency. The important thing is for people not to become complacent."
Jindal said Sunday that he had authorized 4,000 Louisiana National Guard troops to stand by if needed to secure parts of southern Louisiana hit during the storm, and the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was readying 200 boats for high-water rescues.
Michelle Ingram, 42, owner of Zeus' Place, a New Orleans pet boarding and rescue business, said she made the decision late Saturday to move her 32 rescue dogs and cats to a friend's ranch in Mississippi. That meant buying 40 pounds of cat food, 80 pounds of dog food and 100 pounds of kitty litter and packing up all the pets for the 2½-hour drive north.
Katrina took Ingram's home, and Gustav forced her to move all of her pets to Mississippi.
This time around, the move is going more smoothly, even though Ingram has less time in which to do it, she said. Still, leaving is tough. "There's always this thought that when I leave, I'll never see my house again," Ingram said.
The Gulf Coast hasn't been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region.
And while many people are hoping the storm could have a silver lining bringing record rain to dry areas, Isaac "is not going to be a drought-buster, but any rain would be welcome," said John Gagan, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Springfield, Mo.
A brief period of heavy rain would ease drought conditions, he said, but "what you need to break the drought is consistent rainfall over a period of weeks and weeks and weeks."
Isaac has already prompted the closure of several Gulf Coast oil refineries, a move that could push prices at the pump 10 cents a gallon or higher over the next few days. The region's refineries produce about 22% of the nation's supply. Currently, gasoline averages $3.75 a gallon nationwide, the highest ever for this time of year.