Hurricane Isaac lurched toward New Orleans early yesterday after making landfall, seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated the “Big Easy” and killed hundreds along the US Gulf Coast.
Isaac, which reached hurricane strength earlier in the day and was packing maximum sustained winds of 130kph, lashed southern Louisiana with heavy rains and strong winds, as residents hunkered down.
The US National Hurricane Center said the Category 1 storm had generated a “dangerous storm surge” along the northern Gulf Coast, with a surge of 3m reported in Louisiana and fears of coastal flooding.
States of emergency were declared in Louisiana and Mississippi, allowing authorities to coordinate disaster relief and seek emergency federal funds.
More than 4,000 members of the Louisiana National Guard have been activated, with 48 boat teams deployed around New Orleans, according to the office of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who had warned residents to prepare for the worst.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said on Tuesday that the city could expect up to 40cm of rain or more because the hurricane was moving slowly over the area.
“We have dodged a bullet in the sense that this is not a Category 3 storm,” he said. “But a Category 1 at this strength ... is plenty big enough to put a big hurt on you if you fall into complacency. Let’s not do that.”
US President Barack Obama urged people to take the threat seriously, warning of the possibility of major flooding and damage.
“I want to encourage all residents of the Gulf Coast to listen to your local officials and follow their directions, including if they tell you to evacuate,” Obama said, adding: “Now is not the time to tempt fate.”
Obama said he had managed a wide-ranging effort by federal and local governments to prepare for the storm.
His televised appearance showed the power of an incumbent to intervene at politically advantageous moments, just as Republicans met in Florida to nominate Mitt Romney as their candidate for the November presidential election.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for metropolitan New Orleans, a city known as the Big Easy for its jazz and easy-going life-style.
Isaac’s powerful winds downed power lines — Entergy Louisiana said on its Web site that more than 300,000 customers were affected.
As of 5am GMT yesterday, the hurricane was moving northwest along the Louisiana coast and its eye was about 110km southeast of New Orleans, the center said.
“Little change in strength is forecast this morning,” the center said. “Slow weakening is expected after that.”
Jindal said his state contacted Washington about getting reimbursed for hurricane-preparation spending — an allusion to agonizing delays in getting federal help after Katrina blasted the city.
“We sent a letter yesterday to the president. We have learned from past experiences that you can’t wait. You have to push the federal bureaucracy,” Jindal said.
While most New Orleans residents heeded calls to hunker down in their homes, a steady stream of more adventurous souls headed to the banks of Lake Pontchartrain to feel the power of the wind and watch the crashing waves.
Other die-hards spilled into the handful of bars still open in the famed French Quarter, but the streets emptied as heavier rains and darkness fell.
The timing of the storm — set to bear down on New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of Katrina — nevertheless had many here on edge.