By Michael kunzelman and
Louisiana officials said Wednesday they may have to intentionally breach a levee in a flooded area as Hurricane Isaac made a slow, drenching slog inland before weakening to a tropical storm and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was declared in New Orleans.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said officials may cut a hole in a levee on the east bank of Plaquemines Parish to relieve pressure on the structure. At a news conference in Baton Rouge, Jindal said there was no estimate on when that might occur.
He said as many as 40 people are reportedly in need of rescue in the area.
Plaquemines Parish has also ordered a mandatory evacuation for the west bank of the Mississippi River below Belle Chasse, worried about a storm surge. The order affects about 3,000 people in the area, including a nursing home with 112 residents.
Officials said the evacuation was ordered out of concern that more storm surge from Isaac would be pushed into the area and levees might be overtopped.
Joshua Brockhaus, an electrician who lives in the flooded area, helped rescue neighbors in his boat.
“I’m getting text messages from all over asking for help,” he said. “I’m dropping my dogs off and I’m going back out there.”
The hurricane’s impact was a surprise for him.
“We didn’t think it was going to be like that,” he said. “The storm stayed over the top of us. For Katrina, we got 8 inches of water. Now we have 13 feet.”
Meanwhile in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a curfew for the city as Hurricane Isaac lashed the city on the seven-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s destructive arrival. The curfew was issued to prevent looting. So far, there had been only sporadic arrests for looting.
Police cars had been patrolling the nearly empty streets since Isaac began bringing fierce winds and heavy rains to the city Tuesday night. The curfew was set to start Wednesday night and would last until further notice.
Although Isaac was much weaker than Katrina, which crippled the city in 2005, the threat of dangerous storm surges and flooding from heavy rain was expected to last all day and into the night as the immense comma-shaped storm crawled across Louisiana.
Army Corps spokeswoman Rachel Rodi said the city’s bigger, stronger levees were withstanding the assault.
“The system is performing as intended, as we expected,” she said. “We don’t see any issues with the hurricane system at this point.”
There were initial problems with pumps not working at the 17th Street Canal, the site of a breach on the day Katrina struck, but those pumps had been fixed, Rodi said.
Rescuers in boats and trucks plucked a handful of people who became stranded by floodwaters in thinly populated areas of southeast Louisiana. Authorities feared many more could need help after a night of slashing rain and fierce winds that knocked out power to more than 600,000 households and businesses.
The extent of the damage was not entirely clear because officials did not want to send emergency crews into harm’s way. In Plaquemines Parish, a fishing community south of New Orleans, about two dozen people who stayed behind despite evacuation orders needed to be rescued.
“I think a lot of people were caught with their pants down,” said Jerry Larpenter, sheriff in nearby Terrebonne Parish. “This storm was never predicted right since it entered the Gulf. It was supposed to go to Florida, Panama City, Biloxi, New Orleans. We hope it loses its punch once it comes in all the way.”
Water driven by the large and powerful storm flooded over an 18-mile stretch of one levee in Plaquemines Parish. The levee, one of many across the low-lying coastal zone, is not part of the new defenses constructed in New Orleans after Katrina.
After maintaining hurricane strength through the morning, Isaac weakened to a tropical storm Wednesday afternoon with 70 mph winds and was expected to continue losing strength. It came ashore at 7:45 p.m. EDT Tuesday with 80 mph winds near the mouth of the Mississippi River, driving a wall of water nearly 11 feet high inland and soaking a neck of land that stretches into the Gulf.
In the French Quarter near Bourbon Street, Jimmy Maiuri stepped outside his second-floor apartment to shoot video. Maiuri, who fled from Katrina at the last minute, stayed behind this time and had no regrets, though he was amazed at the storm’s timing.
“It’s definitely not one to take lightly, but it’s not Katrina,” he said. “No one is going to forget Aug. 29 forever, not here at least.”
The storm drew attention because of its timing __ coinciding with the Katrina anniversary and the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Isaac promised to test a New Orleans levee system bolstered by $14 billion in federal repairs and improvements after the catastrophic failures during Katrina. But in a city that has already weathered Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Brian Schwaner and Cain Burdeau in New Orleans; Kevin McGill in Houma, La.; Holbrook Mohr in Waveland and Pass Christian, Miss.; Jeff Amy in Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss.; Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala.; Jessica Gresko in Mobile, Ala.; Erik Schelzig in Braithwaite, La.; and Curt Anderson at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.