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NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Isaac struck the Gulf Coast Tuesday evening hours before the seventh anniversary of catastrophic Katrina, packing 80 mph winds, and the outer bands of hurricane-force winds and storm surge battered New Orleans.
Landfall came in Plaquemines Parish at 6:45 p.m. southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the National Hurricane Center reported. By 7 p.m. in downtown New Orleans, winds bent trees like rubbery posts, rain pelted down, and the waters of Lake Pontchartrain churned white-capped waves ashore.
By the Florida Courier’s press time Wednesday night, more than 750,000 Gulf Coast-area homes and businesses were without power – more than 650,000 in Louisiana alone, according to officials at Entergy, the state’s largest electricity provider.
Isaac, a Category 1 storm, lingered over the Gulf Coast and inland areas for two days, and tested the multibillion-dollar effort to improve and fortify a New Orleans flood-control system that failed spectacularly seven years ago.
Federal levees held
After residents fled low-lying areas under mandatory evacuation orders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressed quiet confidence Tuesday that its revamped network of levees, flood gates, flood walls and pumping stations would hold against a sluggish but massive storm.
Earthen levees in Plaquemines Parish were being overtopped early Wednesday, but they are outside of the federally designed and maintained system. The Corps, providing assistance in Plaquemines Parish, was set to intentionally breach a local levee on Thursday to relieve flooding of hundreds of homes.
With New Orleans essentially shut down, residents faced a siege of sorts, with threats of tornadoes and extended power outages in a city that constantly battles high water. The situation was just as tense along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, which faced the same dire circumstances as New Orleans: storm surges of 6 to 12 feet, and rainfall totals up to 20 inches in some areas.
Felt in wallet
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.
Significant flooding or wind damage could crimp gasoline production and gasoline shipments via pipeline to hub cities such as Atlanta, which serve the Eastern Seaboard. Isaac could raise gasoline prices above $4 a gallon temporarily on parts of the East Coast.
According to weather forecasters at AccuWeather.com, drenching rain from Isaac is forecast to reach some needy drought areas in the Plains and Midwest into the weekend. Portions of Arkansas, Missouri and other Central states will soon be on the receiving end of soaking downpours.
While flooding rainfall in southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi will tend to diminish farther inland, some beneficial rain will fall on the parched landscape hundreds, if not a thousand, miles away from the Gulf Coast.
Death in Haiti
The death toll from Tropical Storm Isaac rose Monday to 19 in Haiti, where disaster officials warned the number could increase and donors continued efforts to assess damage to crops and homes.
Haitian and humanitarian officials were still trying to assess Isaac’s impact as the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations flew reconnaissance flights around Haiti’s capital and some of its hardest-hit region. On Monday, at least 2,346 homes were damaged and 335 destroyed. The big concern is over the loss of crops and the storm’s impact on a deadly cholera epidemic that has already killed more than 7,000 Haitians.
Concerns about cholera have been joined by worry over food security as reports continued to flow about the loss of plantain, beans and other crops in storm-hit rural communities.
Brushed by Cuba
Isaac’s encounter with Haiti weakened the storm and, tracking near the coast of Cuba for much of Sunday, it failed to pull itself into a hurricane before it approached South Florida.
Cuban work crews swept up the debris left behind by Isaac, which knocked down four houses and forced nearly 50,000 people to leave their homes but in the end caused far less damage than feared. Damages to Cuba’s tourist facilities were minimal.
Rather than getting stronger as it moved off Cuba, Isaac weakened a bit as its center skirted just south of Key West after a meandering journey across the Caribbean. David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at NHC, said the storm hugged Cuba closely enough to disrupt its formation. But it fueled up on the warm Gulf of Mexico and there was nothing in the atmosphere to beat it down.
Isaac was big but not bad to Florida. It blew little down other than palm fronds, branches and random trees. It frustrated fliers with hundreds of cancelled flights, sunk a few boats in the Keys and sparked scattered power outages across South Florida. There were no reports of serious damage or flooding. Tampa, scene of this year’s Republican National Convention, was largely spared.
Melissa M. Scallan, Anita Lee and Kevin G. Hall of McClatchy Newspapers; Curtis Morgan, Cammy Clark, Jacqueline Charles, Juan O. Tamayo and Susan Cocking of The Miami Herald; and Tina Susman, Matthew Teague and David Zucchino of Los Angeles Times (MCT) all contributed to this report.