Arthur Harvey sits on his cot in the hurricane shelter at the Belle Chasse Auditorium on Monday in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
By Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS - Predictions of Tropical Storm Isaac making landfall along the Gulf Coast on Tuesday prompted evacuations along a wide area of the region as many residents recalled the devasation of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.
Federal authorities said rising water, not wind, was a major worry. The large, slow-moving storm will push water from the Gulf ashore as well as dumping 18 inches of rain on already saturated land.
Residents began stockpiling food, water and other staples; lines at gas stations were growing; and airlines began canceling flights to and from the area as the size of the storm expanded and officials declared emergencies in four states
Katrina destroyed about 80% of New Orleans and killed about 1,800 people across the Gulf Coast.
"I gassed up - truck and generator," John Corll, 59, a carpenter, said as he left a New Orleans coffee shop Monday morning. He lived 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.
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. Cannon, 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 rainstorm. I think they overreacted, but I understand where they're coming from. It's safety," he said.
In Grand Isle, a barrier island about 100 miles south of New Orleans, residents latched down homes and drove out boats as a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the island. Isaac's fickle path has made it difficult to advise residents when they should leave and where they should go, councilman Jay LaFont said.
"This has been a really challenging one," he said.
If it hits during high tide, Isaac could push floodwaters as deep as 12 feet onto shore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and up to 6 feet in the Florida Panhandle, while dumping up to 18 inches of rain over the region, the National Weather Service warned.
Criag Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Monday that he hopes residents have learned from Katrina and will heed calls to evacuate to higher ground.
"We are concerned that people did not learn the lesson about water," Fugate said. "We need people to go now."
Some of the heaviest impact could be in Alabama and Mississippi, he said.
"I know Katrina is first and foremost on everyone's mind because the anniversary is approaching," on Wednesday, Fugate said. "This is not a New Orleans storm. This is a Gulf Coast storm."
In Jackson, Miss., Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. urged residents to prepare for heavy rain and strong wind gusts on Wednesday. Meanwhile, city emergency crews, including law enforcement and public works, are on standby, he said.
"We will continue to monitor the situation and we are prepared to deploy the necessary city resources if and when they are needed," Johnson said in a news release. "We will also share information with citizens through our Code Red alert system as it becomes available.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal strongly encouraged residents Monday not to put off preparations, such as gathering medication, food, water and other supplies. He said that 20 Louisiana parishes were under a hurricane warning and that 23 had declared a state of emergency.
He already called for a state of emergency, and 53,000 residents of St. Charles Parish near New Orleans were told to leave ahead of the storm. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also declared states of emergency.
"Hope for the best as you prepare for the worst," said Jindal during a morning press conference in Baton Rouge. Jindal also expressed concern about the storm hovering over areas with high rain volume and winds causing problems, especially in areas known for flooding.
Jindal outlined statewide preparations including moving prisoners out of New Orleans; making about 3,900 beds available in Shreveport shelters; mobilizing 4,000 National Guard troops; and getting state troopers to monitor evacuation routes. He said state offices in Baton Rouge and southern Louisiana would close Tuesday and Wednesday.
Heavy flooding could be devastating to low-lying coastal communities like Vermilion and Iberia parishes in Louisiana that were heavily damaged by storm surge during Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
"We'll just have to worry about how much rain we'll get and flooding," said Vermilion Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness Director Rebecca Broussard.
Most residents have rebuilt, but not all.
"A lot of people are prepared, but they're some that are not elevated," Broussard said. "They're still waiting for insurance or FEMA money."
Contributing: Gary Strauss, Ben Mutzabaugh, Natalie DiBlasio, Doyle Rice, Carolyn Pesce in McLean, Va.; Daily Advertiser, Lafayette, La.; Judy Keen in Chicago; Donna Leinwand Leger in Washington; Alison Bath of The Shreveport Times; Brian Eason, The Clarion Ledger; Associated Press.