New Orleans braced for Hurricane Isaac

Seven years on from Hurricane Katrina, a wary New Orleans prepares for the worst

New Orleans

Under a darkening sky, Sergio Lobo-Navia was shuttering the windows of his picturesque home in the Tenth Ward of New Orleans yesterday, as rising winds and increasingly heavy rain showers heralded the imminent arrival of Hurricane Isaac.

Indoors, next to stacked-up garden furniture, pot plants, and other belongings recently moved from harm's way was a stash of emergency supplies: tinned tuna, peanut butter, bread and gallons of drinking water, along with batteries, flashlights and a transistor radio.

"I've filled the bath with water, in case we need something to flush the toilet with," said Lobo-Navia, a 24-year-old film-maker who shares the house with four flatmates.

"The fridge has also been filled with beer, because we'll most likely be stuck indoors for a while."

Beyond the horizon, Isaac was strengthening from a Tropical Storm to a Category One hurricane as it moved slowly across the Gulf of Mexico, hitting sustained wind speeds of 80mph, and rising. It was scheduled to make landfall some time after dark, bringing up to 20 inches of rain and storm surges that could hit 12 feet to the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Across New Orleans, people boarded up properties, stocked up on essentials, and prepared for a sleepless night. Police cars began patrolling the streets, and around 4,000 uniformed National Guard soldiers, some of them armed, patrolled in Humvees, hoping to warn off looters.

Some bars in the historic French Quarter remained open, but most windows were boarded up. Strip clubs and jazz clubs closed around lunchtime, and the usual crowds of tourists were conspicuous by their absence.

Local authorities decided not to order a mandatory evacuation of the city after meteorologists predicted that Isaac would fall some way short of the "hundred year storm" level that might threaten flood defences. But many residents left of their own volition. On Monday, traffic jams were reported on major freeways out of town.

"We're dealing with a big storm and there could be significant flooding and other damage across a large area," said Barack Obama from the White House yesterday. "Now is not the time to tempt fate. Now is not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously."

Residents of many coastal communities in southern Louisiana, which lack the defences of New Orleans, were meanwhile told to leave home and head to safety.

Though winds remain manageable, meteorologists fear that torrential rain could cause flooding. Isaac’s sedate speed – it’s been moving as slowly as 8mph – may exacerbate localised rainfall totals. And the region has just experienced a particularly wet summer.

Few of the hundreds of thousands of people who live in Isaac’s path unaware of the devastation a hurricane can bring. Today marks the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which caused 1,800 deaths and $80bn in damage – making it the costliest natural disaster in US history.

"This city has been through the worst, so at least we know how to prepare," said Jack Woynowski, a survivor of Katrina, yesterday. "There's going to be plenty of wind and rain but I'm ready to ride it out. I've got water, food, the vehicles are gassed up. Living here, you get to know the ropes."

The shadow of 2005 hangs heavily over almost every quarter of the city, much of which sits below sea level. Swathes of the Lower Ninth Ward, an impoverished neighbourhood which took the brunt of the flooding, remain derelict. And the population remains well below pre-Katrina levels, since many refugees failed to return.

A stone's throw from Lobo-Navia's home is an infamous branch of Walmart which was looted during Katrina, becoming synonymous with a breakdown in law and order.

"They still don't even sell guns there anymore," he said. "For a Walmart in Louisiana, that's saying something."

Isaac's timing also carries political weight. Not only is it shifting the news media's attention from the Republican Convention, which got underway in Tampa yesterday, it's also serving the electorate with a timely reminder of Bush-era government incompetence.

An orderly response to Isaac may also showcase the importance of some government spending opposed by Republicans, who have, for example, forced a 43 per cent reduction in grants to pay for disaster preparedness.

Flood defence: The $15bn wall

A wide wall of rubble blocks the entrance of the Gulf Outlet Canal at Bayou La Loutre, a remote patch of coastline about 40 miles, as the crow flies, south-east of New Orleans.

The massive barrier, made from 350,000 tonnes of rock, was completed in 2009, effectively closing an artificial waterway which since its construction in the 1960s had provided a shipping shortcut from the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

It forms a centrepiece of the $15bn ring of flood defences built around New Orleans in recent years to ensure a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina never happens again.

During the 2005 disaster, a wall of sea water was pushed up the Canal, destroying the levees that protect communities to the east of downtown New Orleans. The floods that followed covered 80 per cent of the city and turned the disadvantaged Lower Ninth neighbourhood into the effective Ground Zero of a disaster that saw 1,800 deaths.

Today, 350 miles of those levees are taller – by as much as six feet – and stronger than the ones that failed so drastically. The canal system is equipped with pumps that can remove dangerous build-ups of storm water.

To the east of the city there is now a 1.8-mile-wide, 25ft-high barrier across the Mississippi. It was closed for the first time yesterday to prevent flood waters from surging up the river.

Computer models suggest the network is capable of easily handling a "100-year storm" similar to Katrina, which was classified as a Category Three hurricane when it made landfall. And while much of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana remains below sea level, and therefore vulnerable to at least some flooding, the authorities are confident they can prevent a major catastrophe.

They are helped by the fact the people of New Orleans no longer adopt a laissez-faire attitude to extreme weather. By yesterday afternoon, citizens had largely finished reinforcing their homes and stocking up on supplies, and vulnerable areas were evacuated.

"We are not expecting a Katrina-like event with breaking the levees," the city's Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, reassured his citizens. "We're going to be all right."

Guy Adams

After the flood: New Orleans then and now now

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on 29 August 2005, it left about 80 per cent of the city underwater, killed 1,836 people and caused an estimated $82.1bn damage. In the seven years since, the recovery operation has transformed the city:

Population

Before 484,000 people, 67 per cent of them African-American.

After About 360,400, some 60 per cent African-American.

Flood defences

Before Contruction setbacks meant the city's floodbank system was unfinished when Hurricane Katrina struck.

After An injection of $14bn was used to improve flood defences, to cope with a Category 3 hurricane and winds of up to 111mph.

Temporary housing

Before One year after Katrina, 70,000 families lived in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

After In July this year, that number finally reached zero, according to the Associated Press.

Poverty

Before 27 per cent of households were believed to live below the poverty line.

After The statistic remains unchanged, as does the city's crime rate – twice the national average.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen