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Hurricane Isaac Pummels Louisiana Coast

Aired 8/29/12 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Guest

Andy McKellar, Disaster Services Director of the Red Cross in San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Transcript

Heavy, wind-driven rain from Hurricane Isaac was battering parts of Louisiana today, leaving tens of thousands without power as the slow-moving system crept northwestward, straining levees on its march inland.

But New Orleans has yet to feel the full brunt of Isaac, which came ashore at 7:45 p.m. EDT Tuesday near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Even so, Isaac, a Category 1 hurricane with 80 mph winds, was already putting an extensive $14.5 billion post-Katrina upgrade to New Orleans' levee system to the test exactly seven years after the 2005 hurricane hit the city, causing widespread devastation.

Although Isaac "wobbled" and moved west overnight, The Times-Picayune website noted late Tuesday night:

"The huge storm still poses a major wind and rainfall threat to the New Orleans area, however. Hurricane force winds extend outward up to 60 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds extend outward 185 miles."

Torrential rain — amounting to as much as 20 inches in some areas — was expected to linger for hours over parts of New Orleans. Already, the National Weather Service reported "significant flooding from overtopping of levees in the East Bank portion of Plaquemines [Parish]." The parish is on the southernmost tip of Louisiana.

The Associated Press quotes Parish spokesman Caitlin Campbell as saying water has breached an 18-mile stretch of the levee and that some homes are flooded, but that streets in the area were still passable.

NPR's Christopher Joyce, reporting from New Orleans, says that while flooding has occurred in Plaquemines, the levees there and elsewhere are holding so far. He says some residents in the area are being evacuated.

Ryan Bernie, a spokesman for the city of New Orleans, said the storm had caused only some minor street flooding before dawn and felled trees but had left roughly 125,000 customers in the city without power, according to the AP.

In total, The Times-Picayune reports some 250,000 residential and commercial customers in Louisiana were without electricity as of 11 p.m. Tuesday. NPR's Russell Lewis says "transformers are exploding like popcorn, sending bright flashes of light into the sky."

(Power outages can be tracked here.)

Thousands of police and Louisiana National Guard troops, activated by Gov. Bobby Jindal on Tuesday, were prepared to answer rescue calls, state officials said.

A spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, Jill Bode, says volunteers with supplies are already providing help throughout the storm-affected regions.

"We're up to almost 2,500 people now that are either responding to situations in Florida, working in shelters throughout Texas and the rest of the Gulf area, or are on standby to start doing damage assessment," Bode said.

Tens of thousands of Louisiana and Mississippi residents living in low-lying areas were advised to leave their homes, but many of them chose to stay and ride out the storm, despite memories of Katrina's devastation and appalling death toll. Among those who were taken out of the storm's path were 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes.

The National Weather Service says the storm is moving agonizingly slow at just 8 mph, giving it plenty of time to pummel and saturate affected areas. The center of the system is still approximately 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.

According to the NWS, "A general northwest motion at a slower forward speed is expected today and tonight ... followed by a turn toward the north-northwest by Thursday night or early Friday."

That will put the center of a likely weakened Isaac over southern Arkansas by early Friday.

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