Rescue efforts began in earnest Wednesday morning as Hurricane Isaac slowly pushed northward, sparking tornado warnings along the Mississippi coast, dangerous flooding and overtopped levees in Louisiana and power outages in three Gulf Coast states.
National Guard troops and local residents rushed to the aid of stranded residents in Plaquemines Parish, La., about 90 miles east of New Orleans. Through the overnight and early morning hours, a father-son team of boaters helped gather residents seeking shelter from floodwaters on their rooftops in the parish, which had been under a mandatory evacuation. The Times-Picayune, the hometown paper in New Orleans, identified the local heroes as Jesse Shaffer Sr. and his son Jesse Jr.
Television stations carried video taken by the Shaffers of the rescue of residents who had taken refuge in their attics. The parish president, Billy Nungesser, reported surge levels of at least 12 feet coming into homes in a parish that was the site of Isaac’s landfall at 7:45 pm EDT on Tuesday night.
Nungesser and others reported 18 miles of levees on the western bank of the Mississippi had been overtopped by the storm surge and tidewaters. The levees did not appear to give way, but rather were topped by rising waters.
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By nearly noon EDT, the Coast Guard in the New Orleans remained on standby, unable to begin search and rescue operations in wind gusts that continued to top 70 mph nearly 17 hours after the Category One hurricane made landfall. Although the wind speeds paled compared to Hurricane Katrina, which came ashore seven years ago Wednesday and claimed more than 1,800 lives along the Gulf Coast, the wide and slow-moving nature of Isaac made it a devastating storm.
East from New Orleans, tornado watches were in effect along three Mississippi coastal counties for most of Wednesday, and a warning went into effect late in the morning for areas around the Pearl River, where Mississippi and Louisiana meet.
In the coastal city of Gulfport, home to tourism, casinos and condos in Mississippi, Wednesday brought an initial sense of relief.
“We’re lucky at this point, but we do have some infrastructure damage,” said Rupert Lacy, emergency management director for Harrison County, home to hard-hit Gulfport and Biloxi. “There is going to be some damage to the beach, and we’re suspecting that we will have homes and buildings with water. But we probably won’t know that for sure until tomorrow (Thursday).”
More that 3,000 residents in coastal Mississippi were without power, with more than 9,000 in the same predicament in coastal Alabama. New Orleans had more than half a million residents without power because of Isaac, and the local power company Entergy warned it would be days before everyone in the area has electricity again.
In some good news for residents along the U.S. East Coast, there were no apparent damages to a major pipeline operated by Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline that carries gasoline and diesel from the Gulf Coast to the heavily populated region.
“Everything right now is normal ... we haven’t lost power. Right now everything is good,” said Steve Baker, a company spokesman.
Although refiners in the New Orleans area ramped down production, the pipeline company was able to continue to draw from supplies in storage at refineries, and the pipeline originates in Houston, allowing refiners there to increase their supplies.
It all translates to relief for East Coast motorists, who were looking at possible $4-a-gallon gasoline had there been greater disruption.
“The way things look right now, that’s correct,” said Baker.
Also on Wednesday, the 24-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway remained closed in the New Orleans area, complicating the return of residents who were evacuated. The span was likely to remain closed for much of the day.
Further east in Gulfport, power lines were down, and flooding closed U.S. 90, a key coastal highway that runs the length of Harrison County. Reporters for the Sun Herald, a McClatchy newspaper that is distributed in Mississippi’s three coastal counties, described a scene of chaos as the sun came up, with downed trees on roads and tree limbs and branches littering yards..
Parts of the Mississippi coast were under a curfew overnight, making it easier for emergency management officials to respond to calls for help. The curfew was extended Wednesday until noon at the earliest. Authorities rescued a family with a six-month-old child overnight from a houseboat on the Pearl River, which is a water border between the state and Louisiana. On the Back Bay in Biloxi, rescue teams saved a man who tried to ride out the storm on a sailboat. The Popps Ferry Bridge in Biloxi was closed Wednesday after rescue officials found a sailboat mast dangling over a lane of the drawbridge.
Underscoring Isaac’s slow movement, the National Weather Service had a tornado warning in effect until 4 p.m. Central time Wednesday for all three of Mississippi’s coastal counties, and there were flood warnings in the state capital, Jackson, more than 100 miles away.
Most of the damage seemed concentrated in Plaquemines Parish, a swampy area which sticks out like a finger in the Gulf of Mexico.
“This is something I’ve never seen before ... this is not a Category One storm,” Billy Nungesser, parish president, told The Weather Channel in the early morning hours.
The National Hurricane Center, in an advisory overnight, said Isaac made a second landfall near Port Fourchon, La., and began its march northwards across land. By 6 a.m. EDT, there was little sign that Isaac was on its way out, with sustained winds of 80 mph for nearly half a day.
Because Isaac came ashore over a swampy area, there was little to break up the center of the storm and it remained largely intact as it began moving over land as a dangerous rainmaker. It continued to move slowly at a pace of around 6 mph, ensuring the storm would remain a problem in coastal communities into Thursday.
Interviewed on The Weather Channel shortly after Isaac came ashore, Nungesser said the storm surge had unexpectedly pushed up the Mississippi River, which has been at historical lows because of this summer’s punishing drought. Water was splashing over the tops of the river’s levees, causing concern.
“We’re concerned if this keeps up it will push up the river and bring the river over its banks,” Nungesser said.
However, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ken Holder told The Weather Channel that tidewaters were receding and no breach of levees was expected.
A few hours later, the worst fears apparently came true as one or more Mississippi River levees were overtopped. The deteriorating weather conditions made it difficult to assess exactly what was happening in the parish. Holder did not return requests from McClatchy for comment.
The National Hurricane Center reported Tuesday night a storm surge of 10.3 feet was registered at a National Ocean Service tide gauge in Shell Beach, La. A storm surge of 6.7 feet was reported at a tide gauge in Waveland, Miss. The center upgraded its rain forecasts at 10 p.m. central time, projecting seven to 14 inches in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, warning of “significant lowland flooding” and 20 inches of rain in isolated locations.
“This storm is packing a hell of a punch,” said a worried Nungesser.
Worried about flooding and with Japan’s tsunami fresh in mind, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the Waterford 3 nuclear power plant in Killona, west of New Orleans, was shut down as a precaution
President Barack Obama had issued a disaster declaration for the states of Louisiana and Mississippi before Isaac hit, and Isaac was the first large test of efforts to strengthen the levee system in the New Orleans area since Katrina swamped the hapless preparations in 2005. The upgrade levees in the federal system appeared to have held and done their job. The levees overtopped on the western shore of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish were not part of the levee repair project and do not appear to have given way to the force of the storm surge.
Richard Knapp, the head of the National Hurricane Center, had warned Tuesday that the “large size plus the slow motion, it means near the coast and well inland the rainfall and flooding could be a serious issue.”
The Port of New Orleans remained closed Wednesday, as was the Port of Mobile in Alabama. Barge traffic along the Mississippi River was halted from Baton Rouge, La., south to the mouth of the mighty river.
“Any movement on the waterways is only by permission of the captain of the port; everything is shut down,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Elizabeth Bordelon, a Coast Guard spokeswoman in New Orleans whose office looks out at the river. “It’s strange to see no traffic. The streets are pretty quiet here.”
While Gulf Coast residents will feel Isaac’s wrath, much of the East Coast is likely to feel the storm in the wallet. Almost 94 percent of oil production in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico was shut in by Isaac, the Energy Department said Tuesday afternoon. Gasoline refineries in the New Orleans area, with a capacity to refine 3 million barrels a day, ramped down production.