Floods, outages as Hurricane Isaac head toward New Orleans

Hurricane Isaac began a slow, drenching slog inland from the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, pushing water over a rural Louisiana levee and stranding some people in homes and cars as the storm spun into a newly fortified New Orleans exactly seven years after Katrina.

Although Isaac was much weaker than the 2005 hurricane that crippled the city, the threat of dangerous storm surges and flooding from heavy rain was expected to last all day and into the night as the immense comma-shaped storm crawled across Louisiana.

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.”

There were initial problems with pumps not working at the 17th Street Canal, the site of a breach on the day Katrina struck, but those pumps had been fixed, Rodi said.

Rescuers in boats and trucks plucked a handful of people who became stranded by floodwaters in thinly populated areas of southeast Louisiana. Authorities feared many more could need help after a night of slashing rain and fierce winds that knocked out power to more than 500,000 people.

The extent of the damage was not entirely clear because officials did not want to send emergency crews into harm’s way. In Plaquemines Parish, a fishing community south of New Orleans, about two dozen people who stayed behind despite evacuation orders needed to be rescued.

“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. It was supposed to go to Florida, Panama City, Biloxi, New Orleans. We hope it loses its punch once it comes in all the way.”

As Isaac’s eye Isaac passed overhead, authorities in armored vehicles saved a family whose roof was ripped off, Larpenter said.

Two police officers had to be rescued by boat after their car became stuck. Rescuers were waiting for the strong winds to die down before moving out to search for other people.

“The winds are too strong and the rain too strong,” Plaquemines Parish spokeswoman Caitlin Campbell said.

Water driven by the large and powerful storm flooded over an 18-mile stretch of one levee in Plaquemines Parish. The levee, one of many across the low-lying coastal zone, is not part of the new defenses constructed in New Orleans after Katrina.

Isaac was packing 75 mph winds Wednesday, making it a Category 1 hurricane. It came ashore at 7:45 p.m. EDT Tuesday with 80 mph winds near the mouth of the Mississippi River, driving a wall of water nearly 11 feet high inland and soaking a neck of land that stretches into the Gulf.

The storm stalled for several hours before resuming a slow trek inland, and forecasters said that was in keeping with the its erratic history. The slow motion over land means Isaac could be a major soaker, dumping up to 20 inches of rain in some areas. But every system is different.

“It’s totally up to the storm,” said Ken Graham, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Slidell, La.

Isaac’s winds and sheets of rain whipped New Orleans, where forecasters said the city’s skyscrapers could be subject to gusts up to 100 mph.

In Mississippi, the main highway that runs along the Gulf, U.S. 90, was closed in sections by storm surge flooding. At one spot in Biloxi, a foot of water covered the highway for a couple of blocks, and it looked like more was coming in. High tide was likely to bring more water.

In Pass Christian, a Mississippi coastal community wiped out by hurricanes Camille and Katrina, Mayor Chipper McDermott was optimistic Isaac would not deal a heavy blow.

“It’s not too bad, but the whole coast is going to be a mess,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people had been told ahead of Isaac to leave low-lying areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes. Mississippi shut down the state’s 12 shorefront casinos.

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