NEWORLEANS — Hurricane Isaac was downgraded to a Tropical Storm with 70 mph winds at 2 p.m. Wednesday, more than 18 hours after first making landfall in Plaquemines Parish and beginning a slow churn off the coast.
An 80-mph Category 1 system that made its landfall at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, Isaac struck seven years to the day that Hurricane Katrina roared ashore.
The storms effects were far from diminished in spite of downgrade.
Subdivisions of a New Orleans suburb were being evacuated because of high water as conditions continued to stress the storm-wearied region.
Laplace, a community nearly 30 miles west of New Orleans, has the neighborhoods of River Forest, Spring Meadow, Palmetto Lake, Palmetto South, Palmetto Ridgewood, Bellegrove, Robichaux ad Remy Drive evacuated.
New Orleans ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew Wednesday afternoon, joining a list of parishes and communities that already had done so.
Earlier, breathtaking rescues by residents using private boats helped evacuate stranded people in Braithwaite, a small town in Plaquemines Parish outside of the federal levee system. Water flooded over a Gulf of Mexico levee, trapping people in their attics in the hours before and after sunrise.
Hours later, parish president Billy Nungesser ordered the evacuation of another area in anticipation of high water near the Oakville floodgate.
“Water is over the top of the roof,” said Sharon Sylvia, who had to be rescued in Braithwaite. “We had to break through the ceiling and come through the attic and they took us out of the attic into the boat. It’s very bad down there. Very bad.”
Meanwhile, more than 650,000 homes or businesses in Louisiana were without power by the afternoon. For Entergy, more than 600,000 were without power, with Orleans Parish alone accounting for 161,000 and Jefferson Parish adding another 176,700-plus. Cleco reported more than 50,000 without power, with nearly 48,000 coming in St. Tammany Parish.
With winds above 30 mph expected to remain in the metropolitan area through at least Thursday morning, repair crews won’t be able to get out for another two days. Power could be out at least a week.
“That’s not out of the realm of possibility based on where things stand right now,” Entergy Louisiana CEO Bill Mole said. “We’ve had significant damage to the system and it very well could be that order of magnitude.”
In Lafitte, outside of the flood barrier system, water rose a foot-and-a-half in a 30-minute period as winds shifted to coming from the south, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said.
“We’re beginning to see some water cross over some of the parking lots in lower Barataria at this time,” Normand said. “So that obviously will be our next challenge and hopefully we’re not faced by the same plight that has been faced by Billy Nungesser in Plaquemines.
“… It’s just heart-wrenching. You hear the people on the cell phone in their attics and on their roofs.”
Outside of Braithwaite, boats were stationed on the west bank, waiting on conditions to improve before attempting rescue missions to a ferry landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River.
Though a mandatory evacuation was declared for the area prior to Isaac’s arrival, some residents couldn’t get out in time.
The story was different for those inside the levee protection system.
Army Corps of Engineer officials said that a $14 billion levee system rebuilt and strengthened after Katrina was holding up and that pumping stations were operating as designed. Seven years earlier, levee breaches allowed water to flood 80 percent of New Orleans.
Isaac’s wrath was felt in other ways.
By 10:30 a.m., New Orleans’ City Hall had recorded 6.32 inches of rain while Arabi had taken on 10.26 inches. And the rain wasn’t close to ending.
In St. John the Baptist Parish to the west of New Orleans, water was shut off to Laplace after Lake Pontchartrain rose to levels high enough to cause contamination concerns to the system. President Nathalie Robottom said as of 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, 95 percent of her parishes residents were without power.
St. Bernard Parish residents were asked to limit water usage. There were no reports of water in homes mid-morning, a good sign after 98 percent of all structures flooded during Katrina.
Local colleges Loyola University, Tulane University and Delgado Community College all canceled classes until Sept. 4.
Isaac could become the sixth billion dollar tropical system to hit effect Louisiana in some way since 2000. It would follow in the path of Tropical Storms Allison ($5 billion) and Lee ($1.3 billion) along with Hurricanes Katrina ($100-plus billion), Rita ($8-plus billion) and Gustav ($5 billion).
And that’s not mentioning the 2011 BP oil spill. BP is still cleaning tar mats in Bay Jimmy in Barataria Bay. Tropical Storm Lee jarred loose some residual Macondo Well oil last September, scientists reported.
Nevertheless, erosion from Isaac may make questions about oil still in the wetlands moot.
““My guess is that many of the sites we have been studying will be washed away; there may not be any more Bay Jimmy,” lSU scientist Ed Overton said. “I'm sure some tar balls will be washed up but I'm sure the impacts will be small compared to the other damage from the storm.”