A family was rescued from flooding in Braithwaite, La., on Wednesday.
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and KIM SEVERSON
Published: August 29, 2012
NEW ORLEANS — Seven years to the day that Hurricane Katrina and levee failures unleashed a deluge of devastation on the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Isaac brought its own distinctive mode of destruction on Wednesday, drenching the coast not with a quick blow but with an unremitting smothering.
The worst-hit part of the coast was Plaquemines Parish, La., the finger of land that follows the Mississippi River from Orleans Parish out into the Gulf of Mexico, and the place where both Isaac and Katrina first made landfall.
Fears that a locally built gulf-side levee would be overtopped by Isaac’s massive surge were well founded. Many of those on Plaquemines Parish’s east bank who ignored Monday’s order to leave were forced into their attics when the gulf poured in, filling up the bowl between the levees with up to 14 feet of water.
Dozens of people had to be pulled to safety by rescue workers and neighbors. As of Wednesday evening, water was beginning to creep up the west bank of the parish as well, prompting officials to go door to door to evacuate what is effectively the bottom two-thirds of the parish.
“We’ve never seen anything like this, not even Katrina,” said a visibly rattled Billy Nungesser, the parish president, in a briefing to reporters.[mappress mapid="4"]
The same theme was repeated everywhere, by Kim Duplantier, a school principal whose home in Plaquemines had survived multiple hurricanes but was filled to ruin with water on Wednesday; by the mayor of Grand Isle, La., a coastal community that was flooded and cut off from the mainland; and by A. J. Holloway, the mayor of Biloxi, Miss., who now wishes he had ordered people to leave.
The skepticism with which Gulf Coast residents, including Mr. Holloway, viewed Isaac — which was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm by midafternoon on Wednesday — proved treacherous.
“I really didn’t anticipate this,” said Mr. Holloway, as he wheeled his sport utility vehicle to the edge of Highway 90, a cozy coastal road usually filled with carloads of beachgoers and casinogoers but now a steadily swelling river. “There’s a lot more water than I would have thought.”
In New Orleans, the decision by most residents to stay did not turn out to be disastrous. Trees were down across the city, and streets flooded, and three-quarters of the city was without power, as it will be for several days for more than 600,000 across the state, until the wind dies down enough for utility workers to come in. But despite a few nervous moments, the city’s all but finished $14.5 billion flood protection system seems to have worked.
Outside the city, severe flooding was widespread as Isaac sat defiantly on the coast. The National Hurricane Center expected the storm to drop up to 25 inches of rain in some areas. Officials said Wednesday night that they were working to evacuate up to 3,000 people from floodwaters in St. John the Baptist Parish, about 30 miles west of New Orleans. Tornado warnings were also in effect in several Mississippi counties.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Wednesday that more than 4,000 people were in shelters across the state, and that 5,000 members of the National Guard had been deployed to help in response efforts. What is perhaps most remarkable about the storm is that there are still no reported fatalities, especially considering the degree to which it caught gulf residents by surprise.
“Initially, the storm only being a tropical storm instead of a hurricane, many people, especially the people who live down there, didn’t have a whole lot of concern,” said Deano Bonano, an aide to a parish councilman, referring to the town of Lafitte outside the levee. By Wednesday afternoon, the bayou that splits the town was rising so rapidly that scores, if not hundreds, of people were facing potentially days of being cut off from the world.