NEW ORLEANS – Isaac was on the verge of becoming a full-blown hurricane Tuesday as it rolled over the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana, where residents of the low-lying coast left boarded-up homes for inland shelter while people in New Orleans waited behind levees fortified after Katrina.
Forecasters predicted the tropical storm would power up to hurricane strength, which starts at winds of 74 mph, later in the day and be at least a Category 1 hurricane by the time it's expected to reach the swampy coast of southeast Louisiana early Wednesday. The forecast track has the storm aimed at New Orleans, but hurricane warnings extended across 280 miles from Morgan City, La., to the Florida-Alabama state line. It could become the first hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast since 2008.
Early Tuesday, Isaac was a large and potent tropical storm packing top sustained winds of 70 mph. The storm system was centered about 125 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River at 5 a.m. EDT and moving northwest at 12 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Although Isaac's approach on the eve of the Katrina anniversary invited obvious comparisons, the storm is nowhere near as powerful as Katrina was when it struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina at one point reached Category 5 status with winds of more than 157 mph, and made landfall as a Category 3 storm.
Still, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned that Isaac, especially if it strikes at high tide, could cause storm surges of up to 12 feet along low-lying areas including south Lafourche Parish, where hurricane veteran Windell Curole kept a close eye on the levee system he oversees; and in Houma, a city southwest of New Orleans, where people filled up a municipal auditorium-turned shelter.
Simon and Crystal Naquin decided to bring their teenage sons to the shelter because they were afraid the camper they call home might flood, situated as it is between a navigation canal and lower Bayou Caillou.
Simon Naquin said he rode out hurricanes when he was younger, but doesn't do that anymore since seeing the damage wrought by hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Rita.
"Now that I got kids, I've seen too much to say, `Stay,"' said Naquin, who shared a twin air mattress with his wife while their sons read and snacked on jambalaya amid a pile of blankets and next to a stash of water bottles and food.
Not far from the shelter, where the atmosphere was subdued, the lights were low and the music loud at Sue Sue's on the Bayou Sports Bar, owned by the husband-and-wife team of Sonny Diehl, 63, and Sue Diehl, 62.
The couple moved to Houma after they rode out Katrina at a New Orleans hotel.
"I think we take it more seriously down here," Sue Diehl said. "And everybody prepares. They get together, they help each other. It's a great community."
"Everybody helps everybody," Sonny said. "Not so much in New Orleans."
In the Big Easy on Monday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu did not activate a mandatory evacuation. Instead, officials urged residents to hunker down and make do with the supplies they had.
Federal officials said the updated levees around New Orleans are equipped to handle storms stronger than Isaac.
But with landfall expected Wednesday, Katrina's seventh anniversary, anxiety was high, especially in the Lower 9th Ward, wiped out by Katrina after floodwalls burst and let the waters rush in.
"I don't really trust the levees," said Robert Washington, who planned to evacuate along with his wife and five children. "I don't want to take that chance. I saw how it looked after Katrina back here."
He leaned over the banister of his porch railing and looked out onto empty lots where houses stood before Katrina. His neighborhood, just a few blocks away from where the floodwall protecting the Lower 9th Ward broke open, remains largely empty.
Christine Wiltz, 21, wandered down a street in a daze with two of her boys, ages 6 and 4, in tow.
"I just have $10 to my name," she said.
She walking to the nearest general store about a mile away to see what she could buy with her money, then planned to take her boys on a bus across the city to her sister's apartment in Algiers, a collection of neighborhoods on the western side of the city.
"I'm just confused," she said more than once. "I was young when Katrina came, so this is my first time dealing with this."
A few streets over, Arthur Smith was unpacking supplies from his car and taking them into his renovated house.
"We have the lamp oil, the water, non-perishable food items, the radio that works without a battery," he said, listing some items on his checklist.
He was planning to either evacuate or hunker down with his 76-year-old mother and sister. He said that decision would be made Tuesday morning once Isaac's forecast became better defined.
Ky Luu, the head of Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy at Tulane University, said he was impressed by the preparations people were making around the city and the way the authorities informed the public.
"I didn't sense at all any panic," Luu said. "People were methodical and diligent about preparing for this upcoming storm."