Isaac to become hurricane as New Orleans braces for impact

Storm likely to reach land as category one hurricane on Katrina's seventh anniversary – but mayor decides not to order evacuation

Tropical storm Isaac is on the verge of becoming a hurricane and remains headed for a direct hit on New Orleans on Tuesday night.

The city and surrounding areas are bracing for impact, with Isaac expected to reach land overnight and threaten a wide region of the Gulf coast.

The National Hurricane Center warned that Isaac has the potential to cause flooding in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida through rising water levels of up to 12ft from storm surges and heavy, prolonged rainfall of up to 20in. Winds are expected to be far in excess of 70mph and there will be the threat of tornadoes.

The center's 8am ET update reported that Isaac was about 105 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi river and moving north-west at 7mph, with tropical storm-force winds extending up to 205 miles from its center.

Wednesday is the seventh anniversary of the devastating impact of hurricane Katrina, which caused an estimated 1,800 deaths – the vast majority in the New Orleans region after levees failed – and damage estimated at $96bn.

There is optimism that New Orleans is far better prepared than it was for Katrina, and that Isaac will prove much weaker. Isaac is likely to reach land as a category one hurricane, the lowest on the five-stage scale. Katrina was a category three.

New Orleans' mayor, Mitch Landrieu, did not order an evacuation of the city, but those living outside the levee system were strongly encouraged to leave, and people who chose to stay were asked to use Monday to gather supplies and be prepared to "bunker down in their homes".

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for St Charles Parish and parts of Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Parish: low-lying regions outside the city's defenses. Time to leave is running out, with winds expected to intensify this afternoon.

Workers piled on tons of sand to bolster levees on Monday night, and highways in low-lying parishes near the city were scheduled to close in order to install makeshift flood barriers. Flights in and out of New Orleans airport ceased last night until further notice, and schools are closed until Thursday. Bus, streetcar and Amtrak services have been suspended.

A steady stream of cars headed across Lake Pontchartrain on Monday evening as residents headed towards Baton Rouge and away from the expected track of the storm. There were long queues at gas stations and some ran out of fuel.

President Obama signed an emergency declaration authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) to oversee and help fund the cost of coping with Isaac. However, the Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, criticized the president's declaration as "limited" in a letter sent to the White House and released to media outlets on Monday evening.

"We appreciate your response to our request and your approval," Jindal, a Republican, wrote. "However, the state's original request for federal assistance … included a request for reimbursement for all emergency protective measures. The federal declaration of emergency only provides for direct federal assistance." Jindal said the state had spent about $8m on "emergency protective measures".

The authorities are confident that New Orleans has learned the lessons of Katrina. "We are prepared for what this storm is going to bring us at this point in time," Landrieu told reporters.

Since 2005, in excess of $14bn has been spent on improved safety systems such as better levees, floodgates and pumps, though drainage work is not entirely finished and does not protect the entire New Orleans region.

Isaac will be the first hurricane to hit the Gulf coast since 2008, when Ike and Gustav caused extensive damage.

At least 24 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic died as Isaac headed north-west, brushing the southern fringes of Florida on Sunday, where it caused minor damage and power outages. It has severely disrupted offshore oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to fears that the price of gas at the pumps will rise sharply in the coming days.

A reported 78% of Gulf of Mexico crude production and 48% of natural gas production had been halted by Monday afternoon. The ports of New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, were closed.

Some storefronts in central New Orleans were boarded up on Tuesday morning and the city was quiet, with gathering clouds and a light wind offering a portent of the coming storm.

On Monday, Darren Williams, 16, stood on the stoop of his family's apartment in the Iberville homes, a brick housing project where there are still metal barricades on the doors from the months after Katrina. Though some residents, like the Williams family, returned a couple of months after, the project did not have water or electricity for over six months after Katrina.

Representatives from Nola Ready, the city's new disaster preparedness program, had distributed emergency instruction pamphlets. Williams said the timing brought back terrible memories: "It don't really make sense – I know it's hurricane season, but why on the anniversary?"

Many people at Iberville do not have cars and could not leave when the levees failed after Katrina. This time, the pamphlets explain the city's assisted evacuation program. The courtyards were quiet. It took Faynell Thomas, 38, three years to come back after Katrina. "I wish I never came back," she said. If I leave again, I'm not coming back." She has not left this time because her son is in hospital.

Her friend, Cynthia Jordan, 58, was sitting on the stoop with her. She was at Iberville when the Katrina floods came up to the first storey. There was no official rescue – she escaped by getting on her daughter's boat, before being picked up by helicopter. She got on a bus to Houston, and was away from her home for a year and a half.

"I hope it [Isaac] turns and goes away. I've been through it before, I don't wanna go through it again," she said. Worried about the storms that may follow Isaac, she has packed clothes anyway.

Malcolm White, the executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, lives in Jackson and Bay St Louis, a coastal town directly in Isaac's path that was leveled by Katrina. He came back to Jackson for meetings on Monday but had spent the weekend on the coast preparing.

"Seven years doesn't seem that far away to us," said White, who only rehung pictures at his Bay St Louis house this summer. Though people on the Mississippi Coast go through this twice a hurricane season, White said, "We're just sort of in disbelief because of the irony of the anniversary … this one looks so similar."

At least, White said, Katrina taught residents and leaders important lessons about being ready: "We're as best prepared as we can be."


Tom Dart and Ingrid Norton in New Orleans

The GuardianTramp

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