REPORTERS NOTEBOOK: STORM SURGE AND MONSOON RAIN TAKING TOLL ON LOUISIANA

Water over-topped levees just south of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish. Some places have been inundated by 14 feet of water.

Hurricane Isaac is not the monster feared by some Gulf Coast residents but for some others, the category 1 hurricane has far exceeded their expectations of hell on earth. What I am hearing this morning from Louisiana is, in some ways, similar to what he heard in Houston during Hurricane Ike. Although Ike was a category 2 storm at landfall, the storms slow movement pushed the storm surge on land hours before landfall and was more indicative of a category 3 storm surge.  Hurricane Isaac began a slow, drenching slog inland from the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, pushing water over a rural Louisiana levee and stranding some people in homes and cars as the storm spun into a newly fortified New Orleans exactly seven years after Katrina.

Although Isaac was much weaker than the 2005 hurricane that crippled the city, the threat of dangerous storm surges and flooding from heavy rain was expected to last all day and into the night as the immense comma-shaped storm crawled across Louisiana. Army Corps spokeswoman Rachel Rodi said the city’s bigger, stronger levees were withstanding the assault. That’s good news for New Orleans but not good for Plaquemines Parish just south of downtown New Orleans where levees were being over-topped. while New Orleans continued to see 60 mph wind gusts, it was Plaquemines Parish that took on full focus as daylight began to show the full extent of Isaac’s power.

Boats were stationed on the west bank of the parish, waiting on conditions to improve before attempting rescue missions to a ferry landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Private citizens weren’t waiting, dropping off those rescued from attics they were trapped in in their Braithwaite homes. “It’s horrible. Everybody’s house is falling,” Cheryl Hicks said. “Nobody got a house in Braithwaite. The water is almost over my head. It’s over 20 feet.” Though a mandatory evacuation was declared for the area, some residents couldn’t get out in time. This is exactly what happened on the Bolivar Peninsula during Ike. The storm surge cut off escape routes long before it was expected to.

Sharon Sylvia, a diabetic and a stroke survivor, said she tried to evacuate but had nowhere to go. It was raining so hard, she said, that she wasn’t able to see her hand in front of her face. She eventually was rescued by a boat after she couldn’t drive away from the levee breach overnight. “Water is over the top of the roof,” Sylvia said. “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.” Sylvia’s son and daughter-in-law remained. Hurricane Isaac, an 80-mph Category 1 system that made its landfall Tuesday evening, comes seven years ago to the day that Hurricane Katrina roared ashore.

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. Nearly 540,000 Entergy customers in Louisiana were without power Wednesday morning. Included in that number were more than 159,000 in Orleans Parish and 172,000-plus in neighboring Jefferson Parish, the two most-affected parishes in the state. With 60 mph winds expected to remain in the metropolitan area for the short term, Entergy crews won’t be able to start repairing the system. The safety threshold for repairs to being is 30 mph.

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.

Plaquemines Parish sits in what is basically a marsh between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Like most of Louisiana south of I-10, it is built up on fill dirt. A search and rescue operation is underway there. Officials have received reports that the water is a foot from the top of the levee. Dozens of people on Plaquemines’ east bank, south of St. Bernard Parish, reportedly are stranded, some in attics to escape flood waters that may have reached 5 to 9 feet in certain areas. There is a nursing home in the Jesuit Bend area on the west bank that was not evacuated, and the Governor’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness wants to try to evacuate it. The parish levees on the east bank are about 8.5 feet, though some are as high as 12 feet. Some estimates have storm surge at 13 feet; corps officials this morning put the figure at 12.5 feet. Corps officials are saying that there are no confirmed reports of breaches, which suggest failures in levees. The National Guard was to launch a larger rescue effort this morning, coming into the east bank through St. Bernard Parish. After the wind subsides, other water and air rescue efforts will follow. While federal levees in the area appear to be holding, problems in Plaquemines Parish are occurring in areas not protected by the federal system, which was revamped after Katrina.

Along with the problems at Braithwaite, the levee overtoppings on the east bank are also affecting the Bel Air near White Ditch at River Mile 65. Parish officials have also received calls from a woman at Willspoint on the east bank who is claiming she received 9 feet of water and is in her attic. There are reports that the Woodlawn fire station, between Braithwaite and White Ditch, which received no water during Katrina, has been inundated with 5 feet of water. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said he wants to cut a hole in the Mississippi River levee to drain the Braithwaite area. But the Army Corps is opposed to the plan and hopes to get pumps brought to the area. “My reaction is big and as many as you’ve got,” Col. Edward Fleming, district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said of the pumps.

When the storm is over, the distinction between a federal and non-federal levee will become salient, but for now, the Corps is able to help. Corps engineers are working on getting Plaquemines officials a hydrograph of the back of the levees by Jesuit Bend, so they can get a better handle on what they might be dealing with there. Col. Fleming said Plaquemines officials need to think about getting better pumping capactity down there for future storms. Guy Laigast, director of Plaquemines Parish’s emergency preparedness, said some points may have seen winds of up to 110 mph. “The devastation of my house is worse than Katrina and the flooding in Woodlawn is worse than Katrina, so those things tell me that the damage on the east bank is worse than Katrina,” Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said this morning.

When the daylight hit, parish officials and others were planning to get out and start examining the parish, “like fleas,” said James Madere, a parish GIS analyst who will help assess damage. Mark Riley, the deputy director of Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness who is stationed in Plaquemines this morning, told a Times-Picayune reporter that rescue operations would occur as soon as it was safe. “The standard is we don’t want to put first responders’ lives in jeopardy and until there stops being an immediate threat to their lives we cannot put their lives at risk,” Riley said. It appears from current reports that as Isaac moves upward, it might start pushing water out of the east and into the west. Parish officials are now heavily monitoring Barataria Bay, which reportedly raised 2 feet in the last 90 minutes, from about 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. The fear is that water would get pushed into Plaquemines’ west bank levees and affect residents in Myrtle Grove and the Jesuit Bend area. While many of the homes along the levee in Myrtle Grove are raised about 14 feet, many of the Jesuit Bend are not as high.

Another similarity between Ike and Isaac is the barometric pressure. Forecasters note it is very low, still, for a category 1 hurricane with winds at just 75 miles an hour. What does this mean? Like Ike, it will take a long time for the storm to unwind. I mention this because Ike continued torrential rains and tropical storm force winds as far north as the Ohio River Valley. Could Isaac do the same. The forecast rains as far north as Indiana are for 6 inches of rain which is considerable for a state in the throws of a drought. The National Weather Service at Indianapolis has issued a Hydrologic Outlook which warns that:

FLOODING MAY DEVELOP DURING THE HOLIDAY WEEKEND IN CENTRAL AND SOUTHERN INDIANA DUE TO THE ARRIVAL OF THE REMNANTS OF HURRICANE ISAAC. WHILE RESERVOIRS ARE STILL LOW BECAUSE OF THE DROUGHT…HEAVY RAINFALL ON HARD DRY GROUND IS ESPECIALLY PRONE TO RUNOFF. THIS RUNOFF COULD CAUSE FLOODING OF SMALL STREAMS AND WATERWAYS…ROADS…AND NUISANCE FLOODING OF BASEMENTS. THE TRACK OF THE REMNANTS OF ISAAC IS STILL SHOWING SOME VARIABILITY SO IT IS UNCERTAIN AT THIS TIME THE EXACT LOCATION AND TIMING OF POTENTIAL FLOODING…HOWEVER IT APPEARS THE BEST TIMING FOR HEAVY RAIN WILL BE SATURDAY INTO SUNDAY. THE FORECAST WILL BE UPDATED AS THE EVENT DRAWS CLOSER SO CHECK THE LATEST FORECAST INFORMATION AT WEATHER.GOV/IND. SIGNIFICANT FLOODING IS A POSSIBILITY…NOT A CERTAINTY. FLOOD STATEMENTS AND/OR FLOOD WARNINGS WILL BE ISSUED AS MORE INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE. FOR DETAILED RIVER FLOOD INFORMATION GO TO WEATHER.GOV/IND ON THE WEB. FROM THE BLUE MENU BAR ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE PAGE…CLICK ON RIVERS AND LAKES.

Crews in Houston with CenterPoint Energy are preparing to head to the worst hit areas along the Gulf to help with repairs. A huge part of the aftermath of this kind of storm are the power outages, hundreds of thousands of people are already reportedly without power, and CenterPoint is sending crews to help. This is the work already underway in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans where late yesterday these power crews were already at work. In anticipation of these conditions, work crews here in Houston have already been preparing to help. At least 80 CenterPoint Energy lineman and support personnel, according to that company, will leave for Louisiana later today, in order to help restore power as quickly as possible. The crews are leaving to fulfill a request for assistance from Entergy Louisiana. Houston was on the receiving end of this kind of assistance following Hurricane Ike, at that time, CenterPoint brought in 11,000 outside resources to restore power in the Houston area.

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Posted August 29, 2012 by dmnewsi in Uncategorized

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