Michael Kunzelman and Stacey Plaisance
NEW ORLEANS: Hurricane Isaac made landfall in southeast Louisiana late Tuesday as Gulf Coast residents hunkered down behind boarded-up windows with stockpiles of food and water, and wind-driven rain lashed bayous and beaches. New Orleans calmly waited out another storm on the eve of Hurricane Katrina’s seventh anniversary, hoping the city’s strengthened levees will hold.
Isaac, a massive storm spanning nearly 200 miles from its center, zeroed in on New Orleans, turning streets famous for hosting celebrations at all hours into ghost boulevards. Evacuations were ordered in Mississippi’s coastal counties and the closure of its 12 shore-front casinos. But hours before the storm crossed land in Plaquemines Parish about 90 miles southeast of New Orleans, there was little fear or panic. With New Orleans’ airport closed, tourists retreated to hotels and most denizens of a coastline that has witnessed countless hurricanes decided to ride out the storm.
“Isaac is the son of Abraham,” said Margaret Thomas, who was trapped for a week in her home in New Orleans’ Broadmoor neighborhood by Katrina’s floodwaters, yet chose to stay put this time. “It’s a special name that means ‘God will protect us.’?”
Still, Isaac, which strengthened late Tuesday to 80 mph winds, drew intense scrutiny because of its timing — just before the anniversary of Katrina and coinciding with the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., already delayed and tempered by the storm.
“We don’t expect a Katrina-like event, but remember there are things about a Category 1 storm that can kill you,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, urging people to use common sense and to stay off any streets that may flood.
Other officials, chastened by memories and experience, advised caution. Tens of thousands of people were told to leave low-lying areas, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes. At least one tornado spun off of Isaac in Alabama, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
Many residents along the Gulf Coast opted to ride it out in shelters or at home and officials, while sounding alarm about the dangers of the powerful storm, decided not to call for the mass evacuations like those that preceded Katrina, which packed 135-mph winds in 2005.
Isaac promises to test a New Orleans levee system bolstered after the catastrophic failures during Hurricane Katrina. But in a city that has already weathered Hurricane Gustav in 2008, calm prevailed as residents sized up the threat.
“I feel safe,” said Pamela Young, who settled in to her home in the Lower 9th Ward — a neighborhood devastated by Katrina — with dog Princess and her television, waiting for the storm. “Everybody’s talking ‘going, going,’ but the thing is, when you go, there’s no telling what will happen. The storm isn’t going to just hit here.”
Young, who lives in a new, two-story home built to replace the one destroyed by Katrina, said she wasn’t worried about the levees.
“If the wind isn’t too rough, I can stay right here,” she said, tapping on her wooden living room coffee table. “If the water comes up, I can go upstairs.”
In New Orleans’ French Quarter, Hyatt hotel employee Nazareth Joseph braced for a busy week and fat overtime paychecks. Joseph said he was trapped in the city for several days after Katrina and helped neighbors escape floodwaters.
“We made it through Katrina; we can definitely make it through this. It’s going to take a lot more to run me. I know how to survive,” he said.