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.

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