By KEVIN McGill and CAIN BURDEAU, Associated Press
CHAUVIN, La. (AP) — Finally reaching hurricane status, the unwieldy and wobbly Isaac bore down on this city Tuesday, offering one of the first tests for a stronger, more fortified levee system built after the catastrophic failures during Hurricane Katrina.
Seven years after that storm transformed this city, the mood was calm as the first wave of rain bands and wind gusts rolled ashore, and these battle-tested residents took the storm in stride, knowing they've been through a lot worse. Isaac looked to make landfall as early as Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane with winds of at least 74 mph - much lower than the 135 mph winds Katrina packed in 2005.
Many residents along the Gulf Coast opted to ride it out in shelters or at home and officials, while sounding alarm about the dangers of the powerful storm, decided not to call for mass evacuations. Still, there was a threat of storm surge and the possibility of nearly two feet of rain as it slowly trudges inland.
"We don't expect a Katrina-like event, but remember there are things about a Category 1 storm that can kill you," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, urging people to use common sense and to stay off any streets that may flood.
Isaac became a hurricane Tuesday, a massive storm that reached more than 200 miles from its center, threatening to flood the coasts of four states with storm surge and heavy rains on its way to New Orleans.
At businesses near the French Quarter, windows were boarded up and sandbags were stacked a few feet high in front of doors.
Some tourists said they would ride out the storm near the city's famed Bourbon Street, and there was little to suggest a sense of worry.
New Orleans has been through Betsy, Camille and Katrina.
At a Hyatt hotel in the French Quarter, Nazareth Joseph braced for a busy week and fat overtime paychecks. Joseph said he was trapped in the city for several days after Katrina and helped neighbors escape the floodwaters.
"We made it through Katrina, we can definitely make it through this. It's going to take a lot more to run me, I know how to survive," he said.
The Coast Guard was searching the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida-Alabama state line Tuesday for a man didn't return home from a water-scooter trip as Isaac was approaching. The search began after the man's wife called the Pensacola, Fla., station about 8:45 p.m. Monday, Chief Petty Officer Bobby Nash said.
Otherwise, the damage so far in the United States was political: Republicans cut one day off their presidential nominating convention in Tampa, though in the end it bypassed the bayside city. Isaac is also testing elected officials along the Gulf from governors on down to show they're prepared for an emergency response.
President Barack Obama said Gulf Coast residents should listen to local authorities and follow their directions as Isaac approached.
"Now is not the time to tempt fate. Now is not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously," Obama said.
In Houma, a city southwest of New Orleans, people filled a municipal auditorium-turned-shelter. However, in the bayou country of Terrebonne Parish off Highway 24, storms pose a perennial dilemma for those living a hardscrabble life.
While some of the homes along Bayou Terrebonne and other nearby waterways show signs of affluence, this section of Louisiana 24 is mostly lined with trailer homes or small, often run-down houses. Staying could be dangerous, but many here who could be in harm's way have nowhere to go and little money to get there, especially given the high price of gasoline.
Monica Boudreaux lives in a trailer on low-lying land but was talking Tuesday morning with a cousin who lived closer to the bayou. They and two friends chatted as the storm approached. Boudreaux laughed when asked what she'll do if the storm hits.
"I'm surrounded by all family," she said, referring to her friends as well as her cousin. "I'll just pick up my little fat feet and run, I guess."
Water may be worse than wind because the storm could push walls of water while dumping rain to flood the low-lying coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
New Orleans is in much better shape than it was before Katrina with an injection of about $14 billion in federal funds to fix damage done by Katrina and upgrade the system.
The Army Corps of Engineers has spent the last seven years working nearly around the clock to raise levees several feet, install new stronger floodwalls at critical places and strengthen almost every section of the 130-mile perimeter that protects the greater New Orleans area.
The system is built to hold out storm surge of about 30 feet where the city's boundaries meet the swamps and lakes near the Gulf of Mexico.
The improvements include several massive floodgates that are shut when a storm approaches. In particular, a new surge barrier and gate that closes off the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal near the Lower 9th Ward has reduced the risk of flooding in an area long viewed as the city's Achilles' tendon.
Still, there could be problems, especially is Isaac dumps lots of rain on the city.
"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."
In Mississippi, beachfront casinos were shutting down late Tuesday morning as a beach road flooded and residents hurried to shelters. Coastal residents Charlotte Timmons and Brenda Batey said they planned to stay put unless Isaac took a more menacing turn, believing it wouldn't cause the devastation of some past storms.
Farther away on the Alabama coast, Isaac had begun pelting the shore with intermittent downpours - one moment it was dry, and the next brought rain blowing sideways in a strong breeze. Gov. Robert Bentley lifted mandatory evacuation orders for low-lying coastal areas but encouraged residents to remain vigilant nonetheless.
The boardwalk at the tourist town of Gulf Shores was virtually deserted except for John McCombs, who ventured out to see waves lapping at the seawall at the public beach.
Within moments he was drenched and running for cover as a band of rain hit the wooden walkway.
"That's it. It's here," he said, scurrying back across the street.
One question haunting locals is how much oil left over from the Gulf oil spill in 2010 might wind up on the beaches because of Isaac. Experts believe large tar mats lie submerged just off the coast, but no one knows where they are or how many might be in the Gulf.
Isaac was centered about 75 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River at midday and was moving northwest at 10 mph.
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 the coasts of southeast Louisiana and Mississippi and up to 6 feet as far away as the Florida Panhandle.
On Tuesday morning, there were few signs on New Orleans' famed Canal Street that a hurricane was imminent. A group of apparently intoxicated tourists asked 30-year-old Adrian Thomas to snap their photo as he scanned the headlines of The Times-Picayune in a newspaper box.
Thomas said he was waiting for his father to wire him money so he could leave for his hometown of Greenville, Miss., which is along the Mississippi River more than 200 miles from the coast. However, he said he might not make it out in time - and he was just fine with that.
"I believe it's going to be all right," he said. "If I have to stay here and ride it out, I'll ride it out."
Associated Press writers Cain Burdeau in New Orleans; Kevin McGill in Houma; Holbrook Mohr in Gulfport, Miss., and Jay Reeves in Gulf Shores, Ala., contributed to this report.