New Orleans was battered by powerful winds and torrential rain today, as Hurricane Isaac tore across the Gulf Coast, bringing storm damage and heavy flooding to under-protected suburbs of the City.
The storm, which swept through town on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, seemed unlikely to usher in a repeat of that disaster. But it caused an 11ft surge in sea levels around coastal areas, and breached levees in Plaquemines Parish, on the south-eastern outskirts of town.
Initial damage appeared to be centred on Braithwaite, a town of nearly 1,800 residents directly adjacent to the Mississippi. The river breached its levees in the early hours of yesterday morning, forcing homeowners to flee to upstairs floors of their properties.
More than a hundred were rescued, many of them by boat, according to the parish president, Billy Nungesser. He told reporters that parts of the parish, much of which is below normal river levels, were now under 12-14ft of water.
“We have reports of people on their roofs and attics,” said Mr Nungesser. “This storm has packed more of a punch than people thought.... My house has more damage than it did during Katrina... This’ll be historical.”
One victim, Gene Oddo, told how he was trapped in his attic. “I’m with my wife and my 18-month-old baby,” he told CBS. “The police came at 2am, and told us the levee had broke. Within an hour, water was coming up. It came so quick, it looks like we lost everything. If I have to, I’m going to shoot a hole in my attic here to get out on our roof.”
Mr Oddo and his family were reported to have been rescued several hours later. Plaquemines Parish, where they live, is not protected by a $15bn flood defence system introduced in the aftermath of Katrina. Officials said that the state-of-the-art system appeared to be doing its job of protecting major residential areas of New Orleans.
Isaac is officially classed as a Category One hurricane, with sustained wind speeds up to 80mph. It made landfall shortly after dark on Tuesday and proceeded north-west at roughly 6mph. By teatime yesterday the eye of the storm was 50 miles west-southwest of the city centre.
The streets were largely empty, save for emergency vehicles and military Humvees containing some of the 5,023 National Guardsmen rushed to the region. Minor damage, including uprooted trees and demolished scaffolding, could be seen throughout the historic French Quarter, and a curfew was declared from dusk to dawn.
On paper, Isaac appears to be a less powerful than Katrina, a Category Three storm, with wind-speeds of 130mph, which caused roughly $80bn worth of damage and led to the death of more than 1,800 people. But because it’s moving slowly, the storm is dumping colossal amounts of rain in relatively concentrated areas.
It won’t be possible to gauge the true extent of damage and flooding until later today, when Isaac is scheduled to move northwards through Louisiana, reaching Arkansas by tomorrow and Missouri on Saturday.
The clean-up operation will also focus on restoring electricity to the region, where 570,000 people, including 150,000 residents of New Orleans, are without power - in a part of the world where summer temperatures regularly top 100 degrees.