NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hurricane Isaac began a slow, drenching slog inland from the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, pushing water over a rural Louisiana levee and stranding some people in homes and cars as the storm spun into a newly fortified New Orleans exactly seven years after Katrina.
Although Isaac was much weaker than the 2005 hurricane that crippled the city, 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 Isaac’s 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 500,000 people.
The extent of the damage was not entirely clear because officials did not want to send emergency crews into harm’s way. So far, Plaquemines Parish, a fishing community south of New Orleans, seemed to be the hardest hit.
About two dozen people who stayed behind despite evacuation orders needed to be rescued from the east bank of Plaquemines Parish. The flooding appeared to be widespread.
“We’ve got problems all across the south,” said Kevin Davis, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Two police officers had to be rescued by boat after their car became stuck. Rescuers were waiting for the strong winds to die down before moving out to search for other people.
“The winds are too strong and the rain too strong,” Plaquemines Parish spokeswoman Caitlin Campbell said.
Water driven by the large and powerful storm flooded over an 18-mile stretch of one levee in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans. The levee, one of many across the low-lying coastal zone, is not part of the new defenses constructed in New Orleans after Katrina.
As Isaac’s eye Isaac passed over Terrebonne Parish, a fishing village about 40 miles southwest of New Orleans, Sheriff Jerry Larpenter said authorities in armored vehicles saved a family after the roof was ripped off their house. He said other people had called wanting to be evacuated.
“I think a lot of people were caught with their pants down. This storm was never predicted right since it entered the Gulf. It was supposed to go to Florida, Panama City, Biloxi, New Orleans,” he said. “We hope it loses its punch once it comes in all the way.”
Isaac was packing 80 mph winds, making it a Category 1 hurricane. It came ashore at 7:45 p.m. EDT Tuesday 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.
The storm stalled for several hours before resuming a slow trek inland, and forecasters said that was in keeping with the 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. But every system is different.
“It’s totally up to the storm,” said Ken Graham, chief meteorologist at the National, Weather Service office in Slidell, La.
Isaac’s winds and sheets of rain whipped New Orleans, where forecasters said the city’s skyscrapers could feel gusts up to 100 mph.
In Mississippi, the main highway that runs along the Gulf, U.S. 90, was closed in sections by storm surge flooding. At one spot in Biloxi, a foot of water covered the highway for a couple of blocks, and it looked like more was coming in. High tide around 9:30 a.m. was likely to bring up more water.
In Pass Christian, a Mississippi coastal community wiped out by hurricanes Camille and Katrina, Mayor Chipper McDermott was optimistic Isaac would not deal a heavy blow.
“It’s not too bad, but the whole coast is going to be a mess,” he said.
McDermott stood on the porch of the $6 million municipal complex built after Katrina, with walls of 1-foot-thick concrete to withstand hurricane winds. As he looked out toward the Gulf of Mexico, pieces of a structure that had stood atop the city’s fishing pier washed across the parking lot.
Tens of thousands of people had been told ahead of Isaac to leave low-lying areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes. Mississippi shut down the state’s 12 shorefront casinos.
The hurricane promised to lend even more solemnity to commemoration ceremonies Wednesday for Katrina’s 1,800 dead in Louisiana and Mississippi, including the tolling of the bells at St. Louis Cathedral overlooking New Orleans’ Jackson Square.
The storm drew attention because of its timing — coinciding with Katrina 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, many people had faith.
“I feel safe,” said Pamela Young, who was riding out the storm in the Lower 9th Ward with her dog, Princess, in a new, two-story home built to replace one destroyed by Katrina.
“If the wind isn’t too rough, I can stay right here,” she said, tapping on her wooden living room coffee table. “If the water comes up, I can go upstairs.”
Isaac also posed political challenges with echoes of those that followed Katrina, a reminder of how the storm became a symbol of government ineptitude.
President Barack Obama sought to demonstrate his ability to guide the nation through a natural disaster and Republicans tried to reassure residents as they formally nominated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate.
There was already simmering political fallout from the storm. Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who canceled his trip to the convention in Tampa, said the Obama administration’s disaster declaration fell short of the federal help he had requested. Jindal said he wanted a promise from the federal government to be reimbursed for storm preparation costs.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said such requests would be addressed after the storm.
Obama promised that Americans will help each other recover, “no matter what this storm brings.”
“When disaster strikes, we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first,” Obama said at a campaign rally at Iowa State University. “We’re one family. We help our neighbors in need.”
Along the Gulf coast east of New Orleans, veterans of past hurricanes made sure to take precautions.
Bonnie Chortler of Waveland, Miss., lost her home during Hurricane Katrina. After hearing forecasts that Isaac could get stronger and stall, she decided to evacuate to her father’s home in Red Level, Ala.
“A slow storm can cause a lot more havoc, a lot more long-term power outage, `cause it can knock down just virtually everything if it just hovers forever,” she said.
Those concerns were reinforced by local officials, who imposed curfews in three Mississippi counties.
The storm was “pushing that wave action in,” said Harrison County Emergency Operations Director Rupert Lacy. “And there’s nowhere for that water to go until it dissipates.”
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 Codon, Ala.; and Curt Anderson at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.