NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Isaac sidestepped New Orleans on Wednesday, sending the worst of its howling wind and heavy rain into a cluster of rural fishing villages that had few defences against the slow-moving storm that could bring days of unending rain.
Isaac arrived exactly seven years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and passed slightly to the west of New Orleans, where the high winds and sheets of rain appeared to be no match for a levee system bolstered by $14 billion in federal repairs and improvements after catastrophic failures during Katrina. By Wednesday evening, Isaac’s sustained winds had dropped to 60 mph (112 kph), well below the hurricane threshold of 74 mph (119 kph).
Even at its strongest, Isaac was far weaker than Hurricane Katrina, which crippled New Orleans in 2005.
Still, New Orleans faced tough problems from flooding and downed power lines to scattered tree limbs. But just one person was reported killed, compared with 1,800 deaths from Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. And police reported few problems with looting. Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew just to be sure.
The storm knocked out power to as many as 700,000 people, stripped branches off trees and flattened fields of sugar cane so completely that they looked as if a tank had driven over them.
The hurricane also cancelled commemoration ceremonies Wednesday for Katrina’s 1,800 dead in Louisiana and Mississippi.
In Plaquemines Parish, a sparsely populated area south of the city that is outside the federal levee system, about two dozen stranded people were rescued by boat in flooded coastal areas, authorities said. The storm pushed water over an 18-mile (28-kilometre) levee and put so much pressure on it that authorities planned to intentionally puncture the floodwall to relieve the strain.
West of New Orleans in St. John the Baptist Parish, flooding from Isaac forced 1,500 people to evacuate. Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office said thousands in the area needed to evacuate. Rising water closed off all main thoroughfares into the parish, and in many areas, water lapped up against houses and left cars stranded.
By midafternoon, Isaac had been downgraded to a tropical storm. Because its coiled bands of rain and wind were advancing at only 5 mph (8 kph) — about the pace of a brisk walk — the threat of storm surges and flooding was expected to last into a second night as the immense comma-shaped system crawled across Louisiana.
Rescuers were waiting for the strong winds to die down before moving out to search for other people.
After wind-driven water spilled over the levee in Plaquemines Parish, state officials said they would cut a hole in it as soon as weather allowed and equipment could be brought to the site.
Plaquemines Parish also ordered a mandatory evacuation for an area on the Mississippi River’s west bank, worried about a storm surge. The order affects about 3,000 people in the area, including a nursing home with 112 residents. Officials said the evacuation was ordered out of concern that more storm surge from Isaac would be pushed into the area and levees might be overtopped.
“I think a lot of people were caught with their pants down,” said Jerry Larpenter, sheriff in nearby Terrebonne Parish. “This storm was never predicted right since it entered the Gulf.”
In New Orleans, Army Corps spokeswoman Rachel Rodi said the city’s bigger, stronger levees were withstanding the assault.
“The system is performing as intended, as we expected,” she said. “We don’t see any issues with the hurricane system at this point.”
Police cars had been patrolling the nearly empty streets since Isaac began bringing fierce winds and heavy rains to the city Tuesday night.
The curfew was set to start Wednesday night and would last until further notice.
In coastal Mississippi, wildlife officers used small motorboats Wednesday to rescue at least two dozen people from a neighbourhood Isaac flooded in Pearlington.
The storm drew massive attention because of its timing —— coinciding not only with the Katrina anniversary, but also the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Isaac also posed political challenges with echoes of those that followed Katrina, a reminder of how the storm became a symbol of government ineptitude.
President Barack Obama sought to demonstrate his ability to guide the nation through a natural disaster, and Republicans tried to reassure residents as they formally nominated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate.
Obama, campaigning before a university crowd in Virginia, pledged that the government was “doing every single thing we need to do to make sure the folks down there are taken care of.”
Isaac came ashore late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, with 80 mph (128 kph) winds near the mouth of the Mississippi River. It drove a wall of water nearly 11 feet (3.3 metres) high inland.
In Vermilion Parish, a 36-year-old man died after falling 18 feet (5.5 metres) from a tree while helping friends move a vehicle ahead of the storm. Deputies did not know why he climbed the tree.
In New Orleans’ famed French Quarter near Bourbon Street, Jimmy Maiuri was shooting video from outside his second-floor apartment. Maiuri, who fled from Katrina at the last minute, stayed behind this time with no regrets.
“It’s definitely not one to take lightly, but it’s not Katrina,” he said. “No one is going to forget Aug. 29, forever. Not here at least.”
The storm stalled for several hours before resuming a slow trek inland, and forecasters said that was in keeping with its erratic history. The slow motion over land means Isaac could be a major soaker, dumping up to 20 inches (500 millimeters) of rain in some areas. But every system is different.
Forecasters expected Isaac to move inland over the next several days, dumping rain on drought-stricken states across the nation’s midsection before finally breaking up over the weekend.
Tens of thousands of people had been told ahead of Isaac to leave low-lying areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. Mississippi shut down the state’s 12 shorefront casinos.
There was already simmering political fallout from the storm. Jindal, who cancelled his trip to the convention in Tampa, said the Obama administration’s disaster declaration fell short of the federal help he had requested. Jindal said he wanted a promise from the federal government to be reimbursed for storm preparation costs.