Much of south Louisiana was preparing for the worst Monday as the slow-moving tropical storm Isaac churned in the Gulf and prepared to make landfall as a hurricane sometime Tuesday night.
Most forecasts predicted the eye would pass through Louisiana, but the storm’s wide bands could be felt in the Baton Rouge area as early as Tuesday morning.
By 5 p.m. Monday, states of emergency had been declared in 23 parishes, including East Baton Rouge. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, declared a pre-landfall emergency for Louisiana, which the state requested and allows federal funding to flow to the state to supplement state and local response efforts.
Universities including LSU, Southern, Southeastern Louisiana University and Baton Rouge Community College announced they will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette will close at 2 p.m. Tuesday and remain closed through Wednesday, according to the school’s website. Nicholls State University in Thibodaux canceled classes through Thursday.
Public and most private schools in East Baton Rouge, Livingston, Ascension, Assumption, East and West Feliciana, St. Helena, St. James, St. Mary, Vermillion, Tangipahoa, West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes announced Monday they will also be closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Schools run by the Recovery School District in the parishes of East Baton Rouge, St. Helena and Pointe Coupee will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday as well.
State government offices in 22 parishes, including East Baton Rouge, will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Gov. Bobby Jindal said he has activated 4,126 Louisiana National Guardsmen and executed an emergency contract for more than 300 commercial buses and more than 5,000 shelter spaces.
East Baton Rouge Parish officials activated the parish’s Emergency Operations Center at 9 a.m. Monday. Mayor-President Kip Holden said it will be staffed 24 hours for the duration.
“This is a very dangerous storm,” Holden said Monday afternoon.
Due to Isaac’s slow speed, residents should be prepared for long periods of high winds and heavy rain, Jindal said Monday.
“It’s tempting to compare it to Gustav and Ike,” Jindal said. “Every storm is different.”
Although the state is prepared for contraflow, a system in which freeways are made one-way to help speed up evacuations, Jindal said it’s not expected that contraflow evacuation will be needed.
“Today is the day for folks to pack up their stuff and get out of harms way,” Jindal said Monday.
Jindal also cautioned people to be careful not just during the storm, but afterward, when there are hazards like downed trees and powerlines.
“Too many people are hurt in the aftermath of storms,” he said.
With Obama’s declaration Monday, FEMA has already deployed teams to the Gulf Coast states.
On a conference call that included Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Obama informed them he had approved the emergency declaration.
Jindal criticized the declaration as limited, and in a letter, asked Obama to expand it. Jindal said he wants reimbursement for all emergency protective measures instead of just direct federal assistance.
Although schools, colleges and state offices will be closed on Tuesday, city-parish offices will remain open, said William Daniel, Holden’s chief administrative officer.
Baton Rouge City Court will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday, according to a release from the court.
Metro Airport officials expect outbound flights to depart as scheduled Tuesday, but say that any incoming flights Tuesday evening and overnight may be canceled. Travelers are advised to contact airlines to check on the status of specific flights.
The Baton Rouge Police Department’s Uniform Patrol Division has been augmented with plain-clothes officers, Chief Dewayne White said Monday. Officers will also be working 12-hour shifts, he said.
Entergy spokeswoman Sheila Pounders said crews from other utility companies from other states are preparing to help Entergy deal with outages. Approximately 4,300 workers were expected to aid local crews, she said.
Crews were checking for areas that could become hazardous, she said.
“We are patrolling the lines,” Pounders said.
East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies will also work 12-hour shifts during the storm, sheriff’s spokesman Col. Lawrence McLeary said.
The Sheriff’s Office has put its high-water vehicles and boats on stand by, and deputies that normally handle courtroom security will be used to handle emergency situations such as downed trees and traffic jams, McLeary said.
ExxonMobil facilities will operate at reduced rates consistent with hurricane preparedness plans, according to a company news release. Some flaring may occur as part of that slow down in operation, the release says.
“As part of our long-term planning, we take this type of natural occurrence into account. Therefore, we anticipate that we will continue to meet customer supply commitments for fuel,” according to the press release.
In Assumption Parish, state and parish agencies monitoring a large sinkhole left the site with their equipment, but plan to return after the storm, parish officials said Monday.
Also, drillers employed by Texas Brine Co. LLC of Houston suspended work on an observational well being bored into a company salt cavern that is suspected as a cause of the sinkhole.
The rig’s 140-foot-tall drilling derrick was laid down Monday, said Sonny Cranch, Texas Brine spokesman. All drillers and other Texas Brine employees and contractors were expected to be gone by the end of the day Monday.
John Boudreaux, director of Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said oil retardant boom holding back diesel on the sinkhole’s surface, which had been damaged earlier this month, was replaced last week.
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources officials think the salt cavern may have failed and caused the sinkhole, which was found between the Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou areas on Aug. 3.
Isaac’s approach prompted mandatory evacuations in several areas, including Grand Isle and Lafitte in Jefferson Parish, St. Charles Parish and the east bank in Plaquemines Parish, Jindal said.
State and parish-run shelters have been opened around the state including a medical special needs shelter at the Carl Maddox Field House at LSU in Baton Rouge, Jindal said. Other preparations include the staging of rescue equipment used by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the transfer of more than 2,000 prisoners from New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish and the organizing of vehicles in New Orleans for evacuation purposes.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continued preparations by having staff go to each of the 13 coastal parishes to serve as government liaisons. In addition, the Corps will have staff at a number of the greater New Orleans hurricane protection system structures including the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West Closure Complex, Seabrook Floodgate Complex and Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate warned Monday that too much national focus may be on New Orleans near the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He said during a media conference call that Mississippi and Alabama could end up with the worst flooding on the more dangerous eastern side of the eye.
“I think people need to understand this is not a New Orleans storm,” Fugate said. “This is a Gulf Coast storm.”
Fugate said that President Barack Obama has directed him to ensure that FEMA and the states are prepared. In the post-Katrina world, FEMA now has the authority to quickly deploy emergency-response resources like food and water without formal requests from governors.
At the 7 p.m. Monday update from the National Hurricane Center, Tropical Storm Isaac had sustained winds of 70 mph and was located about 230 miles southeast from the mouth of the Mississippi River moving northwest at 10 miles per hour.
The Advocate’s Capitol
Bureau Chief Mark Ballard and staff writers Michelle
Millhollon, David Mitchell and Robert Stewart contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved