Isaac expected on land as Category 2 hurricane by seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

It’s been seven years since Hurricane Katrina’s devastating winds caused catastrophic damage to property and lives around the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Now Tropical Storm Isaac has targeted a broad swath of the Gulf Coast on Monday having New Orleans in its crosshairs as it follows a path eerily similar to Katrina’s in 2005 with some differences. For one, it’s not as strong and two, it appears that federal agencies are far better prepared than they were in 2005.

Nevertheless, the storm will require Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi to execute emergency management plans that were partly shaped by Katrina.

La. Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday that 23 parishes in Louisiana have declared states of emergency. “Today is the day for folks in that area to get out of harm’s way,” he said. “Pack up your stuff and get out of harm’s way.”

Because Isaac is a slow-moving storm, there is danger not just from wind damage but also a long accumulation of rain and storm surge, even at inland parishes.

David Bernard, chief meteorologist for CBS Station WFOR in Miami, said outside metropolitan New Orleans, communities not protected by the levee system, such as St. Charles Parish and Lower Jefferson Parish, are in danger.

The potential for a landfall as a Category 1 hurricane as soon as Tuesday prompted evacuations along a wide area of the Gulf Coast and sent people out to stock up on staples.

“I gassed up — truck and generator,” John Corll, 59, a carpenter, said as he left a New Orleans coffee shop Monday morning. He went 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.

The storm that left 10 dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic blew past the Florida Keys with little damage, and rolled northwestward over the open Gulf of Mexico on Monday. The National Hurricane Center predicted it would grow to a hurricane over the warm water, with winds of between 74 and 95 mph. It is predicted to hit sometime Tuesday along a roughly 300-mile stretch of coastline, from the bayous southwest of New Orleans to the edge of the Florida Panhandle.

That would be one day shy of seven years after Katrina struck catastrophically in 2005, although Katrina was a much stronger Category 5 storm with winds above 157 miles per hour. Isaac is expected to have top winds of around 90 mph when it hits land.

But Isaac could pack a watery double punch: If it hits during high tide, floodwaters as deep as 12 feet could be pushed ashore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and up to six feet in the Florida Panhandle, as up to 18 inches of rain is dumped over the region, the National Weather Service warned.

At 11 a.m. EDT on Monday, Isaac remained a tropical storm with top sustained winds of 65 mph. Its center was about 310 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and it was moving northwest at 14 mph.

The size of the warning area and the storm’s wide bands of rain and wind prompted emergency declarations in four states, and hurricane-tested residents were boarding up homes, sticking up on food and water or getting ready to evacuate.

On the Alabama coast, Billy Cannon, 72, was preparing to evacuate — with several cars packed with family and four Chihuahuas — from a home on a peninsula in Gulf Shores. Canon, 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 rain storm. I think they overreacted but I understand where they’re coming from. It’s safety,” he said.

But the Gulf region thinks itself much more prepared for a hurricane since Katrina hit seven years ago. In Louisiana, there has been a $14 billion overhaul of levees and floodwalls and new evacuation plans.

Those plans were put into effect Sunday, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declaring a state of emergency, and 53,000 residents of St. Charles Parish near New Orleans being told to leave ahead of the storm. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu also declared a state of emergency, says CBS affiliate WWL-TV in New Orleans, as did Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley.

The oncoming storm stopped work on rigs that account for 24 percent of daily oil production in the U.S. potion of the Gulf of Mexico and eight percent of daily natural gas production there, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said in its latest update Sunday.

The Gulf of Mexico accounts for 23 percent of total U.S. crude oil production, seven percent of the nation’s natural gas and more than 40 percent of refining capacity.

Several regional governors altered their plans for this week’s GOP convention in Tampa. Bentley has canceled his trip, and Jindal said he’s likely to do so unless the threat from the storm subsides. Scott gave up a chance to speak.

Amtrak cancelled train service in Louisiana for Tuesday and Wednesday. The route than 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, Fla.

Grocery and home improvement stores as well as fuel stations in Louisiana reported brisk business as residents sought to prepare for Isaac. Some gas stations were running out of supplies.

Even though the storm was moving well west of Tampa, tropical storm-force winds and heavy rains were possible in the area because of Isaac’s large size, forecasters said. A small group of protesters braved rainy weather Sunday and vowed to continue despite the weather, which already forced the Republicans to cancel Monday’s opening session of the convention. Instead, the GOP will briefly gavel the gathering to order Monday afternoon and then recess until Tuesday.

The Gulf Coast hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region.

Before reaching Florida, Isaac was blamed for eight deaths in Haiti and two more in the Dominican Republic, and downed trees and power lines in Cuba.

Currently, there are no plans to order evacuations of New Orleans. If an evacuation is ordered, buses and trains would be used to move residents, Landrieu said.

The airport, the convention center and the Superdome would not be shelters of last resort as they were in 2005.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, authorities ordered the port cleared of cargo vessels.

Eight oil rigs and 39 production platforms in the gulf were evacuated by late Sunday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. BP said it would evacuate its oil platform workers Monday.

As preparations continued on the northern Gulf Coast, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was assessing damage as Isaac skirted the state’s western coast, bringing strong winds and heavy rain.

“We are experiencing some minor outages in the southern part of the state,” he said at a news conference in Tampa. He said his main concern for Tampa was no longer a direct hit from Isaac but tropical-storm-force winds.

As of the 11 a.m. National Hurricane Center advisory, hurricane warnings now cover the eastern half of LA, all of MS and AL, and the extreme western FL panhandle. Tropical storm conditions should begin to affect the area as early as this evening, and hurricane conditions could begin by midday Tuesday.

While rainfall and winds will inevitably cause damage, the northern Gulf coast is very prone to large storm surge. The storm surge is water pushed ashore by the storm’s winds… when it reaches the coast, it has nowhere to go but inland. The flatter the land is, the further inland the water can reach.

The exact timing of the landfall can make the storm surge even larger if it occurs during high tide. It’s still a little too far out to determine reliable surge depths, but as of the latest model run, extreme eastern LA and MS could see a 6-12’ storm surge, and perhaps 4-6’ in Mobile Bay, AL.

The bottom line is, if Isaac, stays on its current track, it will hit the Gulf Coast between Florida and Louisiana by Tuesday night or early Wednesday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The storm is forecast to become a hurricane Tuesday.

Isaac is likely to make landfall within 12 hours of the 7 year anniversary of Katrina, and expected to become a hurricane over the northern Gulf before making landfall late Tuesday, over the Mississippi River Delta near New Orleans.