Rescues Continue as Isaac Loses Strength

Isaac was downgraded to a tropical depression Thursday afternoon

By Cain Burdeau and Michael Kunzelman
|  Thursday, Aug 30, 2012  |  Updated 8:42 PM EDT
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Storm continues to dump rain on Louisiana and Mississippi. Danielle Leigh reports.

Storm continues to dump rain on Louisiana and Mississippi. Danielle Leigh reports.

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Isaac was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday, but continued soaking Louisiana for yet another day, pushing more water into neighborhoods all around New Orleans and forcing last-minute evacuations and rescues. The city itself was spared, thanks in large part to a levee system built after Katrina.

The storm's maximum sustained winds decreased to near 35 mph and was expected to continue to gradually weaken. Thursday afternoon, Isaac's center was about 35 miles west-nothwest of Monroe, La., and is moving north-northwest near 12 mph.

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As the storm slogged its way across the state and windy conditions calmed, the extent of some of the damage became clear. Hundreds of homes, perhaps more, were underwater, thousands of people were staying at shelters and half of the state was without power. About 500 people had to be rescued by boat or high-water vehicles, and at least two people were killed.

And the damage may not be done. Officials were releasing water from an Isaac-stressed dam at a lake near the Louisiana-Mississippi border, hoping to ease the pressure. They had also started work on a levee breach in hard-hit Plaquemines Parish. In Arkansas, power lines were downed and trees knocked over as Isaac moved into the state.

Farther south, where evacuations were ordered ahead of the storm, Isaac's unpredictable, meandering path and the amount of rain — as much as 16 inches in some places — caught many off guard.


"I was blindsided, nobody expected this," said Richard Musatchia, who left his home in LaPlace, northwest of the city.

Musatchia said 5 feet of water filled his home before a neighbor passed by with a boat and evacuated him and his 6-year-old boxer, Renny.

He piled two suitcases, a backpack and a few smaller bags onto the boat and said that's all he has left. He left a brand-new Cadillac and a Harley-Davidson behind.

"People have their generators, because they thought the power would go out, but no one expected the water," he said.

Others trickled into a parking lot of the New Wine Christian Fellowship church, delivered by National Guard vehicles, school buses and pickup trucks.

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Daphine and David Newman fled their newly decorate home with two trash bags of clothing. They have lived in their subdivision since 1992, and they never had water in their home from previous storms, including Katrina. The comparison was common one since Isaac hit on the seventh anniversary of the devastating 2005 storm, though the differences were stark.

Katrina was more powerful, a Category 3 at landfall, while Isaac was a Category 1 at its peak. Isaac wobbled around; Katrina barreled into the state and quickly moved through.

David Newman was frustrated the government spent billions reinforcing levees for New Orleans and Jefferson Parish after Katrina and now he had the water.

"The water's got to go somewhere," he said. "It's going to find the weakest link, and with the wind directions, we was ground zero."

Check out real-time, interactive radar of Tropical Storm Isaac

As officials called for impromptu evacuations, a debate started about whether anyone was to blame.

Jefferson Parish Council president Chris Roberts said forecasters at the National Hurricane Center needed a new way of measuring the danger. Many second-guessed evacuation orders, he said.

"The risk that a public official has is, people say, 'Aw, it's a Category 1 storm and you guys are out there calling for mandatory evacuations,'" Roberts said.

Hundreds of people in lower Jefferson chose to ride out the storm — and many of them had to be rescued, he said.

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Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said although Isaac's cone shifted west as it zigzagged toward the Gulf Coast, forecasters accurately predicted its path, intensity and rainfall. He did say the storm crept ashore somewhat slower than anticipated.

Blake also said local officials and residents shouldn't use Katrina as a guide for what areas were at the greatest risk of flooding during Isaac.

"Every hurricane is different," Blake said. "If you're trying to use the last hurricane to gauge your storm surge risk, it's very dangerous."

Along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, officials sent scores of buses and dozens of high-water vehicles to help evacuate about 3,000 people as rising waters lapped against houses and left cars stranded. Floodwaters rose waist-high in some neighborhoods, and the Louisiana National Guard was working with sheriff's deputies to rescue people stranded in their homes.

A Coast Guard helicopter hoisted a couple and their dogs early Thursday from a home in LaPlace, between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, after storm surge poured into their neighborhood and local authorities called for help. The couple was taken to New Orleans and reported in good condition.

"The husband and wife and their two dogs were in an area where a lot of houses washed away," said Lt. Cmdr. Jorge Porto. "They used a flashlight inside the house as a signaling device, which made all the difference in locating them effectively."

To the east, evacuations were ordered in a sparsely-populated area as the lake dam threatened to break. Officials in Tangipahoa Parish, La., feared the water would pour into the already swollen river and flood places downstream. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the controlled release should prevent a significant flooding event.

A tow truck driver was killed Thursday morning when a tree fell on his truck in Picayune, Miss., just across the state line from Louisiana. In Vermilion Parish, a 36-year-old man died after falling 18 feet from a tree while helping friends move a vehicle ahead of the storm. Deputies did not know why he climbed the tree.

President Barack Obama declared federal emergencies in Louisiana and Mississippi late Wednesday, allowing federal aid to be freed up for affected areas.

In southeast Arkansas, winds gusted to more than 40 mph and heavy rainfall fell, knocking down trees and power lines in Chicot County. The small farming town of Eudora lost power. In neighboring Ashley County, a handful of dead trees were scattered across roadways, according to County Judge Emory Austin, who said he was worried about flooding.

"We need the rain, I just don't need a lot," Austin said.

Isaac arrived seven years after Hurricane Katrina and passed slightly to the west of New Orleans, where the city's fortified levee system easily handled the assault.

"Unfortunately, that's not been the case for low-lying areas outside the federal system, in particular lower Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes," said Louisiana Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. "Hurricane Isaac has reinforced for us once again just how vulnerable these critical areas are. We must re-engage the Corps of Engineers on this."

In Plaquemines Parish, a sparsely populated area south of the city that is outside the federal levee system, dozens of people were stranded in flooded coastal areas and had to be rescued. The storm pushed water over an 18-mile levee and put so much pressure on it that authorities were intentionally puncturing the floodwall to relieve the strain.

Louisiana's Public Service Commission said 901,000 homes and businesses around the state — about 47 percent of all customers — were without power Thursday. Utility company Entergy said that included about 157,000 in New Orleans.

 Forecasters expected Isaac to move farther inland over the next several days, dumping rain on drought-stricken states across the nation's midsection before finally breaking up over the weekend.

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Even at its strongest, the storm was far weaker than Hurricane Katrina, which at its peak was a Category 5 and hit New Orleans as a Category 3. Isaac came ashore late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, with 80 mph winds near the mouth of the Mississippi River. It drove a wall of water nearly 11 feet high inland. Because Isaac's coiled bands of rain and wind were moving at only 5 mph — about the pace of a brisk walk — the threat of storm surges and flooding was expected to linger Thursday as the immense system crawled across Louisiana.

In coastal Mississippi, officials used small motorboats Wednesday to rescue at least two dozen people from a neighborhood Isaac flooded in Pearlington. In addition, the National Weather Service said there were reports of at least three possible tornadoes touching down in coastal counties. No injuries were reported.

None of the reports had been confirmed. Until the weather clears, there is no way for survey teams to assess the area to determine whether damage was done by tornadoes or straight-line winds, said NWS Meteorologist Shawn O'Neil.

Back in New Orleans, the storm canceled remembrance ceremonies for those killed by Katrina. Since that catastrophe, the city's levee system has been bolstered by $14 billion in federal repairs and improvements. The bigger, stronger levees were tested for the first time by Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

In Vermilion Parish, a 36-year-old man died after falling 18 feet from a tree while helping friends move a vehicle ahead of the storm. Deputies did not know why he climbed the tree.

The storm stalled for several hours before resuming a crawl inland, and forecasters said that was in keeping with its erratic history. The slow motion over land means Isaac could be a major soaker, dumping up to 20 inches of rain in some areas. New Orleans reported at about 10 inches in some places as rain continued to fall late Wednesday.

Before making landfall in the U.S., Isaac was blamed for 29 deaths in Haiti and 5 in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

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