- Associated Press - Monday, August 27, 2012

NEW ORLEANS — With its massive size and ponderous movement, Tropical Storm Isaac was gaining strength Monday as it headed toward the Gulf Coast. The next 24 hours would determine whether it brought the usual punishing rains and winds — or something even more destructive harkening back to the devastation wrought seven years ago by Hurricane Katrina.

The focus has been on New Orleans as Isaac takes dead aim at the city, but the impact will be felt well beyond the city limits. The storm’s winds could be felt more than 200 miles from the storm’s center.

The Gulf Coast region has been saturated thanks to a wet summer, and some officials have worried more rain could make it easy for trees and power lines to fall over in the wet ground. Too much water also could flood crops, and wind could topple plants such as corn and cotton.

“A large, slow-moving system is going to pose a lot of problems: winds, flooding, storm surge and even potentially down the road river flooding,” said Richard Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “That could happen for days after the event.”

The storm’s potential for destruction was not lost on Alabama farmer Bert Driskell, who raises peanuts, cotton, wheat, cattle and sod on several thousand acres near Grand Bay, in Mobile County.

Rick Knabb is director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Rick Knabb is director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. (AP ... more >

“We don’t need a lot of water this close to harvest,” Driskell said.

However, Isaac could bring some relief to places farther inland where farmers have struggled with drought. It also may help replenish a Mississippi River that has at times been so low that barge traffic is halted so engineers can scrape the bottom to deepen it.

Forecasters predicted Isaac would intensify into a Category 2 hurricane, with winds of about 100 mph, by early Wednesday around the time it’s expected to make landfall. The current 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.

Evacuations were ordered for some low-lying areas and across the region, people boarded up homes, stocked up on supplies and got ready for the storm. Schools, universities and businesses closed in many places.

Still, all the preparation may not matter if flooding becomes the greatest threat. In Pascagoula, Miss., Nannette Clark was supervising a work crew installing wood coverings over windows of her more than 130-year-old home. But she said all that won’t matter if a storm surge reaches her home, as it did after Katrina in 2005.

“The water was up to the first landing of the stairs,” she said. “So I get very nervous about it.”

Isaac’s approach on the eve of the Katrina anniversary invited obvious comparisons, but Isaac is nowhere near as powerful as the Katrina was when it struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina at one point reached Category 5 status with winds of over 157 mph. It made landfall as a Category 3 storm and created a huge storm surge.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said the updated levees around New Orleans are equipped to handle storms stronger than Isaac. Levee failures led to the catastrophic flooding in the area after Katrina.

“It’s a much more robust system than what it was when Katrina came ashore,” said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in a conference call with reporters.

In New Orleans, officials had no plans to order evacuations and instead told residents to hunker down and make do with the supplies they had.

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