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Five Days of Hurricane Isaac 

Charles Maldonado and Alex Woodward on how the city and the citizens coped with the stronger-than-expected storm

click to enlarge Shoppers lined up outside Rouses in Mid-City Thursday and waited about 30 minutes before they were allowed in the store a few at a time. - PHOTO BY CHARLES MALDONADO
  • Photo by Charles Maldonado
  • Shoppers lined up outside Rouses in Mid-City Thursday and waited about 30 minutes before they were allowed in the store a few at a time.

At a noon press conference last Monday, Aug. 27, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a final warning to anyone in Louisiana considering leaving town as Tropical Storm Isaac crept ominously toward the state's coastline: "If anyone's thinking of evacuating, today is the day to do it."

  Jindal was prescient with that comment, but for some reason the state did not immediately activate contraflow, which would have opened both sides of interstate roadways to traffic going in one direction. Jindal noted that Louisiana and Mississippi state police were standing by to begin moving traffic, if needed, in an operation he dubbed "compressed contraflow."

  "This is a serious storm," the governor said. "People need to take it seriously."

  Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu noted that the window of time to order an evacuation had passed — the "hunkering down" of New Orleans thus began.

  On Tuesday, Aug. 28, gray skies moved in as business owners and residents boarded windows and pulled down storm shutters before stronger winds rocked the city. Diners, cafes and coffee shops were packed. Bars and restaurants determined to ride out the storm announced their plans on social media: The Avenue Pub on St. Charles Avenue would be open through the storm. Kajun's Pub on St. Claude Avenue, which typically is open 24 hours, made no exception for the weather ("Hurricane party at Kajun's, we never close!" read a Facebook post).

  The French Quarter was eerily empty. Because a few bars remained open, tourists toting oversized novelty drinks spilled into the streets. Cafe Du Monde closed its doors "so our employees can be with their families" in preparation for Isaac.

  Elsewhere in the city, residents made final preparations and, in some low-lying neighborhoods, moved their cars onto neutral grounds (a move OK'd by the city). Isaac continued to churn slowly toward southeast Louisiana, and people grew less dismissive of it than they were a day earlier. Overheard conversations now inevitably included admonitions to "stay safe," or "stay dry."

  As the storm approached, but before its winds became too dangerous to venture outside, some families drove or walked to Lakeshore Drive as Lake Pontchartrain's waves turned the lakefront green space into a dangerous swimming hole. "I'm somewhat dismayed that there are a lot of people out on Lakeshore Drive trying to experience what it feels like," Landrieu said. "You won't like how it feels if you get pulled in." (Landrieu later announced that New Orleans Police Department [NOPD] officers had picked up "a bunch of knuckleheads" still on the lakefront late Tuesday.)

  Later that day, the National Weather Service upgraded Isaac to a Category 1 hurricane. The city suspended Regional Transit Authority services, and officials closed all flood protection structures, which were beefed up by billions of dollars after Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures. City Council President Stacy Head noted the city's massive preparations: "This is what government was supposed to do years ago and didn't."

  On Twitter (which proved to be as essential a storm resource as a crank radio, a Maglite and D batteries), Gambit readers wrote that they were stocking up on pudding cups, pasta veggie salad, vodka-soaked Gummi bears, Beggin' Strips and cabernet.

  Then the lights went out.

  As the city sat in darkness, wind and rain whipped against houses and buildings. A pale ruby red sky cast an eerie glow, while power transformers gave off bright green fireworks as they popped off one by one across town. Entergy's online outage map was covered in red markers, indicating thousands of homes across south Louisiana had lost power. More than 70,000 homes were in the dark late Tuesday (that number later climbed to more than 300,000) as 75 mph winds continued through the early morning hours of Wednesday.

By sunrise Wednesday, Poydras Street and the rest of the Central Business District (CBD) normally would be clogged with an aggravating mix of aggressive cab drivers, hurried lawyers and slow-moving lost people. One might also have expected to see some local news vans on this particular day, as Aug. 29 was the scheduled date for an evidentiary hearing on the proposed NOPD consent decree, a federal oversight agreement deemed necessary, in no small part, because of what happened in the days and weeks following Aug. 29, 2005.

  Instead, Poydras Street was a wind tunnel. The city was still getting slammed with 50 mph winds. In the CBD, when it pushed through the maze of high-rises, the wind picked up force and knocked down stoplights, trees and human beings. Debris littered the streets.

  In Braithwaite, a community in northeastern Plaquemines Parish, water rose as high as 15 feet, leaving residents trapped in attics and on rooftops. Emergency responders made more than 100 rescues there by mid-morning. Braithwaite sits 20 miles downriver from New Orleans, outside the federal levee system that protects most of the metro area.

  "Braithwaite is not the city of New Orleans. Sometimes the national media has trouble with geography," Landrieu noted at a 1 p.m. press conference, acknowledging that anything near New Orleans carries the city's dateline to the rest of the world. "The people of the United States of America have invested $10 billion to repair the federal levees. ... Those levees are not in danger."

  At the same press conference, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew for the city. It was a soft declaration. At first, Serpas said he "supports the idea" of a curfew. Then, a few minutes later he said, "Please observe the dusk-to-dawn curfew" or risk arrest. What's more, warned District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, power outages made it difficult to access criminal records, so the DA's office assumed all arrestees had records and therefore prosecutors would request high bonds.

  By late Wednesday, NOPD reported 12 looting incidents, a number that later climbed to 16. Serpas noted on Thursday that 13 of those 16 looting incidents resulted in arrests — and that the minimum sentence upon conviction would be three years at hard labor.

  National Guard Humvees filled some neighborhoods. Where they weren't, local police were, constantly flashing their lights as they moved very slowly down major corridors.

Thursday, Aug. 30, saw thousands of residents up early, surveying the damage from their porches, clearing storm drains and removing debris. St. Charles and Napoleon avenues were covered in branches; city employees moved in to sweep storm drains in Mid-City and across town.

  Though most of the city was still without power, the weather turned mild, even sunny for a few minutes here and there. People finally ventured outside in large numbers, as cleaning suddenly seemed pleasant after nearly three days stuck in increasingly uncomfortable houses.

  People also began shopping again, sometimes in throngs. The Mid-City Rouses near Gambit's office had a 30-minute wait outside the front door. A police officer guarded the sliding door, letting people in as others left the store. Despite the crush of shoppers, people mostly acted patiently and with deference.

  Dozens of grocery stores, restaurants, hardware stores, pharmacies and even food trucks announced they were open for business again. All Rouses and Whole Foods Market locations were open, and Twitter and Facebook pages lit up with news about gas stations, restaurants and other services resuming normal hours.

  But the city's quick high from the calm weather was quickly checked by lingering dangers elsewhere.

  A looming dam breach in southwestern Mississippi threatened more than 40,000 people in Tangipahoa Parish. Parish President Gordon Burgess ordered an evacuation for residents within one mile of the Tangipahoa River in the northern half of the parish, and Jindal surveyed the area.

  Floodwaters continued to engulf Braithwaite, La., where, despite a mandatory evacuation, hundreds remained stranded.

  Emergency crews rescued more than 3,500 residents from St. John the Baptist Parish, where unprecedented flooding forced residents in Laplace from their homes.

  In New Orleans, city crews began assessing the damage. Emergency responders moved to the far reaches of eastern New Orleans — areas beyond the levees — where some communities took on several feet of water. National Guard troops opened emergency supply sites, and Landrieu lifted the curfew.

  Entergy got power back to several neighborhoods, but most of New Orleans remained without electricity.

As Friday dawned, many major streets in New Orleans were cleared of debris. The RTA was running 16 bus lines. Large grocery stores throughout the area were opening their doors to long lines of customers. The NOPD reported 40 total arrests for looting; 30 of them had seen bond hearings, with bonds ranging from $50,000 to $150,000.

  In St. Tammany, where more than 80,000 residents lost power, Parish President Pat Brister announced the restoration of power in more than 30,000 homes as floodwaters began to recede in Madisonville and Slidell, where backed-up bayous flooded the city's Old Towne and Palm Lake. Firefighting crews cleared debris as they kept close watch on a swelling Pearl River.

  As residents began reentering Grand Isle, the parish issued a boil water advisory, expected to last at least through the weekend. Meanwhile, public works crews in Jefferson Parish began clearing debris, opening roads for Entergy crews to restore power to more than 144,000 customers without electricity in the parish, as of Friday morning.

  Entergy had restored power to about 20,000 customers in New Orleans, but the vast majority of the city and the surrounding area was still waiting.

  "We fully understand the trust that comes from being without power," Landrieu said in a late Friday morning press conference, urging patience. The mayor continued by asking city residents to have perspective given the devastation elsewhere. "We don't live in a vacuum. We live in a community. ... We should be thankful that we did not receive the tip of the spear."


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