By Rick Jervis, William M. Welch and Alison Bath, USA TODAY
NEW ORLEANS - Officials scrambled on Thursday to evacuate up to 60,000 residents in a rural area as a lake dam threatened to break near the Mississippi-Louisiana border.
PHOTOS: Isaac floods New Orleans
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called the situation in the Tangipahoa Parish area "the biggest challenge" the state faced Thursday. Search and rescue teams were being assembled and two nursing homes were being evacuated.
"This could change very rapidly," Jindal said. "I do want to emphasize the situation is very fluid."
If the dam breaks water would pour into the already swollen river, flooding low-lying areas downstream. Residents had less than 90 minutes to evacuate after the order was given, Jindal said at a briefing Thursday.
Aerial surveillance revealed the dam in Mississippi's Pike County had not broken but concerns were a breech could be imminent, Jindal said. Mississippi officials planned to purposely breach the dam Thursday afternoon but were still reviewing the situation and its impact on the area.
If the dam were to burst, Jindal said, residents could see floodwaters as high as 17 feet - similar to floods in 1983 and 1990.
McComb, Miss., Mayor Whitney Rawlings told WWL-TV there was a 50% chance the dam would fail.
"What they're doing now is saying, 'OK, this thing might go. People need to be moving now in case it does go.' And lord only knows if this thing holds or not," Rawlings said.
Amite Chief of Police Jerry Trabona said officers were going from house to house along both sides of the river, notifying residents of the river threat.
"If they don't have a way out, we will bring them out of there," Trabona said.
Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess told the TV station that Gov. Bobby Jindal had agreed to send over buses to help with the evacuation.
When asked where the evacuees would be taken, Burgess said, "We don't know yet. I just got to get them out away from the river."
Meanwhile, the National Guard was trying to rescue 3,000 people trapped by flooding in La Place, the governor's office said.
Storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas flooded St. John the Baptist Parish. About 1,500 people had been evacuated.
The state dispatched 89 buses to drive residents, including elderly people in an assisted living facility, to shelters in Alexandria and Shreveport. The National Guard deployed seven high-water vehicles on the scene and 25 others in route. The state's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had 30 boats on site and 20 others en route to help in the rescues.
Isaac's battering winds began to soften a bit as the weather system slowly marched north but rescue crews stayed busy across the region, helping residents escape flooded neighborhoods and dealing with incessant rains.
The hurricane-protection system ringing the New Orleans area continued to hold, keeping storm surge and floodwaters out of the city. But in the New Orleans suburbs of LaPlace and Slidell, rescue crews were helping residents evacuate from flooded homes.
A Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued a couple and their two dogs from a flooded house early Thursday morning in LaPlace, Coast Guard officials said in a press statement.
A crew from the Coast Guard Air Station in New Orleans hoisted the husband and wife into an MH-65C Dolphin helicopter after receiving a report around midnight that the couple had been stranded.
"The husband and wife and their two dogs were in an area where a lot of houses washed away," said Lt. Cmdr. Jorge Porto, Air Station New Orleans pilot. "They used a flashlight inside the house as a signaling device, which made all the difference in locating them effectively."
Across Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish, residents were also fleeing flooded neighborhoods.
Homes along Interstate 55 near New Orleans were steeped in floodwaters up to the roof awnings. One sheriff's deputy's car was stranded in floodwater near the highway.
Isaac hadn't completely loosened its grip on the region yet: Area rivers, steadily swelling with Isaac's rains, weren't expected to crest until the weekend, potentially flooding more homes and making more roads impassable, said Capt. Doug Cain, Louisiana State Police spokesman.
"We still have some challenges ahead of us," he said.
As of Thursday morning, about 7,000 residents across southern Louisiana had evacuated to shelters, said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman with Jindal's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. State officials were still staging emergency crews in affected parishes to help in rescue missions, she said.
"A lot of it depends where the water goes now," she said. "And of course we're still having weather."
Louisiana State Police stayed busy clearing roadways and making streets safer. More than 30 roadways across southern Louisiana had closed because of Isaac, including stretches of major thoroughfares such as Interstate 10, U.S. 61 and U.S. 90, Cain said.
State troopers are also tasked with helping local police secure homes and businesses, he said. So far, only a few isolated cases of looting have been reported.
"In the big picture, it's been minimal," Cain said. "We've been very happy with that."
Seven years to the day Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and caused hundreds of deaths, Isaac - downgraded to a tropical storm on Wednesday - is proving far less destructive, but still capable of roiling mayhem. At least two storm-related deaths were reported in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Nearly half of Louisiana is without power. The Public Service Commission says 901,000 homes and businesses around the state - about 47% of all customers - were without power Thursday.
In neighboring Mississippi, utility companies say they are working to restore power to more than 150,000 customers in south and central parts of the state.
Airline, rail and automotive traffic was expected to remain snarled across several states through week's end.
Despite Isaac's waning force, the storm is still expected to dump up to another 15 inches of rainfall over parts of the Gulf Coast region and will plow into the nation's heartland, drenching states as far north as Ohio.
"The category of the storm doesn't capture all of the hazards," said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center. "Take this one very seriously. It's going to take a while for this to spin down. We're still way early before this is all over."
President Obama declared federal emergencies in Louisiana and Mississippi late Wednesday, according to a statement from the White House. The disaster declarations free up federal aid for affected areas.
Parts of New Orleans have already been pounded with up to 17 inches of rain.
"Unfortunately, this is a storm that just won't seem to leave us," said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew. "This is not the time to let your guard down. We're still in this thing, so it's more important than ever for residents to stay vigilant and remain calm."
State and parish officials on Thursday were studying the levees in Plaquemines Parish to figure out the best place to punch a hole in them to relieve trapped floodwaters that overran the enclave of Braithwaite.
Rescue crews evacuated Braithwaite residents in boats after a storm surge from Isaac overtopped levees there, trapping residents in homes and on rooftops.
Braithwaite's levees are smaller tidal levees, about 8-feet high, that ring the community and keep out water from high tide and smaller storms, said Bob Turner, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, who is assisting in the mission. They are not designed to keep out hurricane-strength surges, such as the 12- to 14-foot storm surge that barreled in late Tuesday, he said.
Once the floodwaters got in, the levees kept them in, Turner said.
"The system cannot get the water out by natural means," he said. "You either pump it out or punch a hole in the levees." He added: "There are no pumps large enough to do that in an efficient way."
Officials decided to breach the levee to free the water. In the coming days, an excavator will claw a trench into the levee most likely on the east side of Braithwaite, allowing the water to flow into a nearby diversion canal and sending it into the marshes of Black Bay and eventually out into the gulf, Turner said.
No other homes should be impacted by the levee opening, he said.
Similar levee punctures were done after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that allowed trapped floodwaters in New Orleans to escape, Turner said. The current operation is still a few days away, as weather and high water makes it hard to reach the impacted area, he said.
"The idea is to get the water out as soon as possible so all your search and rescue is done and you can start the recovery process," Turner said.
Flights to and from New Orleans were canceled for a second straight day Wednesday. Airports in other Gulf cities as far east as Pensacola, Fla., were closed. Southwest Airlines said all of its New Orleans flights were suspended at least through 5 p.m. Thursday. The vast number of cancellations - and the storm's trajectory - could cause travel delays across the nation heading into Labor Day weekend.
"We'll be dealing with this storm through early Friday morning," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
Most of Lakeshore Drive along New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain is closed to traffic, but the storm surge remained below the levees. The Army Corps of Engineers' $14.45 billion overhaul of the area's hurricane protection system was holding back surges and floodwaters, said Bob Turner, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East.
Throughout the New Orleans area, neighborhoods swallowed by Katrina's catastrophic floods were drenched by Isaac but spared major flooding. The Lake Borgne surge barrier, a $1 billion structure erected after Katrina, stopped a 15-foot storm surge headed to the Lower 9th Ward- perhaps the hardest hit area in 2005 - and other parts of the city.
Without that 26-foot-high barrier, storm water would have topped levees and flooded neighborhoods ravaged by floods during Katrina, he said. "You would have had water flowing in the Lower 9th Ward again," Turner said. "The barrier did its job."
Lower 9th Ward resident Gloria Guy spent 9½ hours on the roof of her flooded home during Katrina before she was rescued. On Wednesday, Guy said she had mostly slept through Isaac in a home built after Katrina by actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation.
"Much better than Katrina," said Guy, 72. "Besides not having any lights, everything's fine."
Even so, some areas were hit hard. Along the shores of Lake Ponchartrain just north of New Orleans, officials sent scores of buses and high-water vehicles to help evacuate about 3,000 people as rising waters lapped against houses and left cars stranded. Floodwaters rose waist-high in some neighborhoods, and the Louisiana National Guard was working with sheriff's deputies to rescue people stranded in their homes.
Just on the other side of the gate from Braithwaite and inside the hurricane protection system, David Manes, 33, rode out the storm at home with his three young sons. Isaac's winds snapped trees in half and peeled back some of his roof's overhang. Isaac's muscle caught Manes off guard.
"It wasn't supposed to be this bad," he said. "If I had known it would've been this bad, I would've stayed with my mother in Mississippi."
Northern Plaquemines Parish is ringed by a hurricane protection system of fortified levees and flood walls. But stretches on the east bank of the Mississippi River and further south lie outside the protection system, making it still vulnerable to storm surge and flooding, Parish Councilman Kirk Lepine said.
"It came in at the worse scenario we can imagine," Lepine said. "There's nowhere for that water to go than here."
'It's just been rain'
New Orleans' historic French Quarter appeared to have dodged the worst of Isaac. Downed tree limbs, minor flooding at intersections and a brief electrical outage overnight were the main problems confronting the residents stayed.
"Honestly, man, it's just been rain," said Huggington "Huggy" Behr, manager of Flanagan's Pub, which remained open through the night. "To us, we've seen the worst, so it's business as usual."
New Orleans businesses fretted that the lingering storm would hamper this weekend's three-day Southern Decadence gay celebration, which organizers say draws up to 100,000 visitors. Round-the-clock activities are scheduled, mostly around the dozen French Quarter bars and adjoining neighborhood.
Sharon Senner, owner of Chateau Hotel in the Quarter, said all 49 rooms were fully booked for the weekend, but half the guests canceled or inquired about canceling.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said weather conditions continue to worsen in the northern Louisiana, delaying storm damage assessments, power restoration and relief efforts.
The Red Cross- already housing 5,000 evacuees in 80 statewide shelters - is preparing a prolonged recovery. "We're going to be there for weeks," Red Cross vice president Charles Shimanski said. "We need to know what we're recovering from before we know what recovery looks like."
Near Baton Rouge, westbound traffic on Interstate 10 was diverted because of an overturned truck east of Whiskey Bay. "There's no reason an 18-wheeler should be traveling through this weather with 70 mph gusts," Trooper Russell Graham said.
More than half a million Louisiana homes and businesses lost power and most will stay that way for at least several days, Entergy spokesman Chanel Lagarde said.
The company, which serves most of Louisiana, initially planned to dispatch 4,000 workers to repair fallen power lines once the storm passed. Now, with outages so widespread and spreading northward, Entergy said it will need 10,000 workers.
"The one thing that's really hampering us is that the winds are still here," Lagarde said.
Entergy expects it will take "several days" before the company can restore power to most of its customers.
Residents weary of floods
Isaac will never compare to Katrina's ferocity, but its slow, wobbly march north is prolonging another round of agony for thousands along the Gulf Coast.
For Abbie West, it could mark the end of her run in the southern Mississippi town she chose for her retirement.
In her younger years, West says she was a burlesque performer in New Orleans. After her husband died in 2001, she retired and moved to the waterfront community of Waveland in southwest Mississippi, into what she called her "dream home."
Katrina destroyed that house. And now, West hears that Isaac has flooded the trailer she bought to replace it with at least five feet of water.
"I've gone through four hurricanes now since I moved here," said West, now 82, as she waits for the floodwaters to recede in a motel five miles from her home. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I have no idea."
A few doors down, Morris and Dottie Treadway are facing a similar dilemma.
The couple is used to change. In the 55 years they've been married, they've had 58 addresses because of his varied career.
He served six years in the Air Force. He managed Pizza Hut franchises in Canada. He was a councilman in Plaquemines Parish, La., and was a machinist who helped build the Saturn booster rockets that launched Apollo astronauts to the moon. He says he owned the "biggest country-western saloon in upstate New York" for a few years.
So the couple was crushed when the house they built together in Waveland was destroyed by Katrina. They rebuilt it, but now, with no idea how much damage Isaac has wreaked, they're wondering if it's time to move again.
"No," Dottie said. "It's life."
"I'm tired of it," Morris said. "I'd go a little farther north."
Because the floodwaters had not receded by Wednesday night, it was impossible to know how many Waveland homes were flooded by Isaac.
Emergency officials said all 43 people saved by rescue crews on boats in Mississippi came from that area. After touring Waveland, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said the area produced some of the highest storm surges in the state.
"It was 10 foot below the high point of Katrina, which was 28 feet, so you could see how much water is in that area," he said.
Danger in Mississippi
Mississippi hasn't fully assessed Isaac's damage.
Gov. Phil Bryant said the state has been fortunate so far, with no reports of injuries or deaths through Wednesday afternoon. But he worried that people were acting too casual as the weakened storm moved further west. With Isaac's winds keeping the storm surge close to 10 feet throughout the coast, up to 3 inches of rain falling per hour and tornadoes spotted throughout the state, he urged people to stay inside.
"The surge continues. Unfortunately so does the rain and the wind," he said from an emergency operations center in Gulfport. "People appear to be almost ignoring the tornado warnings. This is a very dangerous situation."
Seventy roads were closed near the coast and rescue crews on boats and National Guard trucks had rescued 58 people. Most of those rescues were in Hancock County, which borders Louisiana, where flooding was widespread.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Director Robert Latham said some houses that are flooded there were built on stilts after Hurricane Katrina.
"That shows you the significant height of the water," Latham said. "The storm surge may recede, but we've got a lot of rainfall still coming down that's going to keep those water levels pretty high."
"We really don't have a clue on damages yet," said MEMA spokesman Jeff Rent. "The storm is moving so slowly that it's going to be a while before we get out there to assess it. I can tell you've we've had a lot of roads in our coast counties that have closed due to debris and flooding."
Forecasters expected Isaac to move inland over the next several days, dumping rain on drought-stricken states across the nation's midsection before finally breaking up over the weekend.
Contributing: Jerry Shriver from New Orleans, Alison Bath from Shreveport, La., Alan Gomez from Biloxi, Miss., Larry Copeland from Gulf Shores, Ala., Donna Leinwand Leger from Washington, D.C., Doyle Rice and Carolyn Pesce from McLean, Va.; the Associated Press.