Tropical Storm Isaac strengthened into a hurricane just off the U.S. Gulf Coast yesterday, lashing the New Orleans area with strong winds and heavy rain seven years after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Isaac’s storm surge could pose a major test of New Orleans’ new flood control systems and reinforced levees. Forecasts from the U.S. National Hurricane Center showed the storm coming ashore in the Mississippi Delta late yesterday, possibly taking direct aim at the so-called Crescent City.
“Isaac has finally formed into a hurricane, so we are officially in the fight, and the city of New Orleans is on the front lines,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told reporters.
“Citizens have to be prepared. I’m going to ask you to hunker down,” Landrieu said as hundreds of U.S. Army National Guard troops took up strategic positions around New Orleans.
Brandishing automatic assault rifles to ward off any threat of looting, the troops in military vehicles took up positions on mostly deserted streets. Their arrival came as driving rain and stiff winds began battering the city’s iconic French Quarter.
Earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers closed for the first time the massive new floodgate on the largest storm-surge barrier in the world, at Lake Borgne, east of New Orleans.
In other preparations, oil production in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico ground to a near halt and coastal refineries curtailed operations as Isaac neared the Louisiana coastline.
After Katrina, the Corps of Engineers built a $14.5 billion flood defense system of walls, floodgates, levees and pumps designed to protect the city against a massive tidal surge like the one that swamped New Orleans in Katrina’s wake.
The floodgate that closed yesterday is 26 feet (8 meters) high and 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long. It was designed to prevent the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal from breaching its walls, as it did in 2005, inundating the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and New Orleans East neighborhoods, and St. Bernard Parish.
Most of the Lower Ninth was deserted and quiet by lunchtime yesterday.