Storm Surge From Isaac Ravages Coastal Communities

Hurricane Isaac has continued to drop huge amounts of rain on Louisiana and Mississippi. The slow-moving storm has led to flooding and a storm surge. The worst hit area has been in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana. That's where the eye of the storm crossed Tuesday and it's where levees have strained to keep water out of communities.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And we begin this hour with Isaac. The storm came ashore last night as a minimal hurricane and has been pounding the Gulf Coast ever since. Isaac is moving slowly, bringing heavy rain and winds over 70 miles per hour. It's lost some power and been downgraded to a tropical storm. But Isaac is still a big threat to Louisiana and Mississippi.

BLOCK: In and around New Orleans, streets flooded with rain are threatening to overwhelm pumps. More than a half million people across Louisiana are without power. But the biggest problem so far has been the storm surge, which has overtopped levees in some coastal communities. NPR's Greg Allen reports that in Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, teams have rescued dozens of people from homes where they were stranded by rising water.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Plaquemines Parish, Highway 39 ends now at the town of Braithwaite. Massive floodgates have been closed. On the other side of the floodgates, where the town was, now is just water. The only thing showing are the tops of utility poles. Sergeant James Eldridge is with the Louisiana National Guard.

SERGEANT JAMES ELDRIDGE: They got over 20 feet of water over there. If any of you all are familiar with a scoop loader or a track hoe or whatever, there's a track hoe over there. And all you can see is the arm of it sticking out of the water right now. I mean, you can't really see nothing out there. It's just flooded.

ALLEN: There was a mandatory evacuation ordered for Braithwaite and other communities south of here. Plaquemines Parish has been working to raise the levee in this area, but the work was still underway. When Isaac hit the area, its storm surge overtopped the levee, flooding hundreds of homes. Billy Nungesser is the president of Plaquemines Parish.

BILLY NUNGESSER PRESIDENT, PLAQUEMINES PARISH: We never seen anything like this, not even Katrina. Areas on the East Bank that flooded never flooded for Katrina. Damage to my own home, which is not important, but it's more than what I suffered for Katrina. And I rode out Katrina 14 miles from the eye.

ALLEN: All day in Braithwaite, search and rescue teams have been battling high winds and driving rain, launching small boats off the levee into the floodwaters to try to reach people who ignored the evacuation order. Jerry Lang lives nearby in Poydras. He came down to Braithwaite with his boat to try to help rescue some coworkers. Six of them, he says, decided not to evacuate.

JERRY LANG: And the guys I work with, they stuck out there in the house. And they got five other guys inside the metal building with a boat and floating inside the building. So I was trying to get down there with my boat to go try to rescue them, get them out of that building before they drown over there.

ALLEN: Other authorities, he says, took over that effort. Search and rescue operations were still underway this afternoon. In rescues reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, many people were pulled from their roofs and attics. Today as it happens is Katrina's seventh anniversary. Amy Wilson evacuated from her home in Braithwaite with her husband and two children. She stopped by today to see what shape her neighborhood was in.

AMY WILSON: It's called Braithwaite Park. It's the only subdivision on the left hand - only subdivision when you go through the floodgate. It's on the left-hand side. It's two cul-de-sac streets, and there's probably about a hundred homes back there.

ALLEN: Did you get anything out?

WILSON: We took pictures, but everything else, we put on our second story, thinking that we were going to come back. Maybe some water on the first floor, but not on the second. But from what you're telling me, I have nothing left.

ALLEN: I can't see a house over there at all when I looked, you know?

WILSON: Yeah, we have nothing left then.

ALLEN: Officials here are quick to note that the problems in Plaquemines are with the levee maintained by the state and the parish. The federal levee system protecting New Orleans, rebuilt since Katrina, so far has performed flawlessly. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says state and local officials are concerned about the Plaquemines flooding and consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers about what to do after search and rescue operations are complete.

GOVERNOR BOBBY JINDAL: There's not been a breaching at this point in time. But they are considering actually doing a breach intentionally to release water. They've not decided - they've not made that decision. But the winds have shifted, and so they may actually cause an intentional breach to release some of that water and the pressure on the area.

ALLEN: The shifting winds, while good news for that part of Plaquemines - the east bank of the Mississippi River - presents a threat now to the other part of the parish - on the west bank. As the winds shift, the storm surge may overtop that area's eight-foot levee. A mandatory evacuation has now been ordered for people in that part of the west bank, including more than 100 residents of a nursing home. Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

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