NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Isaac sidestepped New Orleans on Wednesday, sending the worst of its howling wind and heavy rain into a cluster of rural fishing villages that had few defenses against the slow-moving storm that could bring days of unending rain.
Isaac arrived exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina and passed slightly to the west of New Orleans, where the city’s fortified levee system easily handled the assault.
The city’s biggest problems seemed to be downed power lines, scattered tree limbs and minor flooding. Just one person was reported killed, compared with 1,800 deaths from Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. And police reported few problems with looting. Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew just to be sure.
But in Plaquemines Parish, a sparsely populated area south of the city that is outside the federal levee system, dozens of people were stranded in flooded coastal areas and had to be rescued. The storm pushed water over an 18-mile levee and put so much pressure on it that authorities planned to intentionally puncture the floodwall to relieve the strain.
“I’m getting text messages from all over asking for help,” said Joshua Brockhaus, an electrician who was rescuing neighbors in his boat. “I’m dropping my dogs off, and I’m going back out there.”
By midafternoon, Isaac had been downgraded to a tropical storm. The Louisiana National Guard wrapped up rescue operations in Plaquemines Parish, saying they felt confident they had gotten everyone out and there were no serious injuries but would stay in the area over the coming days to help, National Guard spokesman Capt. Lance Cagnolatti said.
Isaac’s maximum sustained winds had decreased to 60 mph by Wednesday evening. Even at its strongest, Isaac was far weaker than Hurricane Katrina, which crippled New Orleans in 2005. Because Isaac’s coiled bands of rain and wind were moving at only 5 mph — about the pace of a brisk walk — the threat of storm surges and flooding was expected to last into a second night as the immense comma-shaped system crawled across Louisiana.
“We didn’t think it was going to be like that,” Brockhaus said. “The storm stayed over the top of us. For Katrina, we got 8 inches of water. Now we have 13 feet.”
In Plaquemines Parish, about two dozen people who defied evacuation orders needed to be rescued. The stranded included two police officers whose car became stuck.
“I think a lot of people were caught with their pants down,” said Jerry Larpenter, sheriff in nearby Terrebonne Parish. “This storm was never predicted right since it entered the Gulf. It was supposed to go to Florida, Panama City, Biloxi, New Orleans. We hope it loses its punch once it comes in all the way.”
The storm knocked out power to as many as 700,000 people, stripped branches off trees and flattened fields of sugar cane so completely that they looked as if a tank had driven over them.
Plaquemines Parish ordered a mandatory evacuation for the west bank of the Mississippi below Belle Chasse because of worries about a storm surge. The order affected about 3,000 people, including a nursing home with 112 residents. In Jefferson Parish, the sheriff ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
West of New Orleans in St. John the Baptist Parish, flooding from Isaac forced 1,500 people to evacuate. And Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office said thousands in the area needed to evacuate. Rising water closed off all main thoroughfares into the parish, and in many areas, water lapped up against houses and left cars stranded.
After wind-driven water spilled over the levee in Plaquemines Parish, state officials said they would cut a hole in it as soon as weather allowed and equipment could be brought to the site.
In coastal Mississippi, wildlife officers used small motorboats Wednesday to rescue at least two dozen people from a neighborhood Isaac flooded in Pearlington.