Gulf Coast Hunkers Down For Isaac's Wind And Rain

People along a wide swath of the Gulf of Mexico coastline are making preparations for Tropical Storm Isaac. The storm is headed toward New Orleans, and is scheduled to develop into a hurricane that could make landfall as early as Tuesday.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

Residents of New Orleans and other cities are performing the balancing act that is an essential part of life along the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes are such a regular feature that you can't let them disrupt your life too much.

INSKEEP: But the memory of Hurricane Katrina serves as a reminder that you also can't be too careful. As Isaac heads for Louisiana, schools in several parishes are planning to close. All classes at Louisiana State University are cancelled for today and tomorrow.

GREENE: The New Orleans Saints football team retreated inland. The Saints will be practicing today in the city of Cincinnati.

INSKEEP: And in addition to Louisiana, residents of Mississippi and Alabama are preparing to feel the effects of the storm.

GREENE: We have reports now from all three of those states. And let's begin our coverage with NPR's Greg Allen in New Orleans.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, like the governors of Mississippi and Alabama, has already declared a state of emergency. He's so concerned about Isaac, he's asked and received from the White House a pre-disaster declaration of emergency, which allows federal aid to begin flowing almost immediately.

In Baton Rouge yesterday, Governor Jindal said he was totally focused on the coming storm, and wasn't interested in talking about the Republican National Convention, where he was to have been a featured speaker.

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: This storm, like every other storm, is nonpartisan. This is the time where we must all come together to fight the storm and work hard to protect our families and our property.

ALLEN: A week ago, Isaac was a disorganized tropical storm in the eastern Caribbean that some meteorologists thought might fall apart before reaching land. Since then, Isaac has grown and meandered west into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it's picked up strength. It's a large storm. Satellite images show it covering most of the eastern Gulf, from the tip of Florida to Louisiana. And it's moving slowly, which Governor Jindal warned Louisiana residents may make it even more dangerous.

JINDAL: The slow-moving nature of this storm means that there are many parts of our state that could be inundated with tropical storm or heavier winds or heavy rainfall for several, several hours at a time. So the slow speed could actually cause more damage as those forces accumulate.

ALLEN: The National Hurricane Center says one of the biggest potential problems from Isaac is flooding. Meteorologists warn some areas along the Gulf may see 24 hours of steady rainfall with accumulations of a foot or more. And because it's so large, Isaac may bring a storm surge of six to 12 feet. That's far less than Katrina, but still enough to test New Orleans' storm protection system.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says he believes the billons of dollars spent on levees since Katrina leaves the city well-protected.

MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU: And I feel very confident, given the levee system, given the 26-foot high, two-mile wall that has been built, given the work that has been done across federal, state and local governments and the private sector, that we are prepared for what this storm is going to bring us at this point in time.

ALLEN: Landrieu is not ordering a mandatory evacuation in New Orleans. That's something not done in the city unless a storm is forecast at Category 3 or higher. Outside the flood protection system, however, it's a different story. More than a dozen parishes in Louisiana have ordered mandatory evacuations in low-lying areas likely to receive flooding. New Orleans' airport has also been shut down today with all flights cancelled.

Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: I'm Russell Lewis in Gulfport, Mississippi.

The center of Isaac may miss this part of the state. But people here are preparing for a direct hit anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLIING)

LEWIS: This Family Dollar store is just a few miles from the beach. A crew of six men is slapping up plywood and drilling it into place to cover the windows.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLIING)

LEWIS: It's one of 14 Family Dollar stores they're rushing to protect in a single day. Patrick Martinez is overseeing the operation.

PATRICK MARTINEZ: I'm thinking about material, labor, and in general just getting it done, 'cause we all have to take care of our personal stuff too.

LEWIS: As his workers hoist up the plywood, shoppers come and go almost non-stop. Some walk out with cases of water. Others have snapped up batteries and non-perishable food. Next door, people have lined up at a self-serve ice machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE MACHINE)

LEWIS: Bobby Blackmon and his wife Camilla bought four big bags of ice to keep their food cold in case they lose power. Camilla and her three children are heading off to an evacuation center, but Bobby plans to stay home. He says people are more calm than they were during Hurricane Katrina.

BOBBY BLACKMON: Not as nervous. More prepared. They ain't taking no chances. Category One, Two - well, they just - they leave. Ain't going to take no chances.

LEWIS: When Katrina battered this region back in 2005, a 30-foot wall of water crashed into this seaside community. It obliterated homes and reminded people of Hurricane Camille in 1969.

David Easterling lived through Camille and Katrina. He was out fishing on the pier yesterday.

DAVID EASTERLING: People do grow complacent when they're not seeing what the, you know, the effects of what's happening and having to see evacuations and prepare and the aftermaths of big storms.

LEWIS: Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant says Isaac won't be as strong as Camille or Katrina. But he says people are worried.

GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: It is reliving one of the most challenging and difficult times in Mississippi's history. We just hope it's not to that level. We are better prepared to manage it, but of course it adds to the anxiety to all of us.

LEWIS: State officials are ready to reverse the flow of traffic on interstates if mass evacuations are needed, but Bryant says if people are uneasy, they should leave before being told or else it might be too late. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Gulfport, Mississippi.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: This is Debbie Elliott in Orange Beach, Alabama. So far the only signs of Isaac here are a strong breeze and rough surf in the Gulf of Mexico, and that rough surf is exactly what local officials are most concerned about. That's because just offshore there are still submerged tarmacs left over from the BP oil spill in 2010, and officials are concerned that Isaac may bring them ashore.

MAYOR TONY KENNON, ORANGE BEACH, ALABAMA: I don't want to talk about the oil because it brings back my biggest fear.

ELLIOTT: Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon says for two years he's been worried about the submerged globs of oil just offshore. They city has been working with BP and FEMA to clarify how to handle oily debris washing up in a storm.

ALABAMA: From a cleanup and from the mechanics of it, I think we're in good shape. From just dealing with the perception - ecological issues, environmental issues - it would be my worst nightmare to see it again.

ELLIOTT: Last night's forecast had Isaac coming ashore further west in Louisiana, but the large system is still expected to lash the Alabama coast. The governor has ordered a mandatory evacuation for beach towns. Mayor Kennon says he won't enforce it in Orange Beach.

ALABAMA: Most of the folks that are right here right now have been through many a storm. We know what to do, common sense applies. I don't think anybody here needs government to tell them to get out of town. Hurricanes don't sneak up on you, you know their coming. So I really feel pretty good about what our folks know to do and how to deal with it.

ELLIOTT: At the beach, locals like Martha Bowler gather to watch the big waves pushed up by the storm.

MARTHA BOWLER: I don't think that we're going to get the worst of it at all. As a matter of fact, I think we might get just the beauty of it.

ELLIOTT: Bowler is not leaving, but has taken precautions at her Bayside home.

BOWLER: You take in every single solitary thing that could be a flying missile, and that could be everything - an innocent flowerpot can do a lot of damage if you don't secure it.

ELLIOTT: Esther Dearborn understands why Governor Robert Bentley called for people to leave, but she says it's hard to go.

ESTHER DEARBORN: We want to stay home because this is our home, but if it looks like it's going to come here and be more than a category one, we won't risk our lives for it.

ELLIOTT: We'll be out of here, she says. Debbie Elliot, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

GREENE: And we also heard from NPR's Russell Lewis and Greg Allen. Now, as Isaac churns towards the Gulf Coast, President Obama offered this warning just moments ago from the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're dealing with a big storm, and there could be significant flooding and other damage across a large area. Now is not the time to tempt fate. Now is not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously.

GREENE: The words of President Obama, speaking just a minute ago from the White House. We have NPR reporters along the Gulf Coast, and they will bring you the latest throughout the day as Isaac makes landfall.

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