Isaac thrashed East Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes Wednesday with hurricane-force winds and torrential rains, downing dozens of trees, leaving tens of thousands without power and posing a threat of serious flooding for some areas in the days to come.
The slow-moving storm, which first made landfall late Tuesday in Plaquemines Parish, moved back out over the Gulf and shifted west before coming ashore as a hurricane around 3:15 a.m. near Port Fouchon. It then began its slow march north, wreaking havoc along its path.
Due to Isaac’s slow speed, East Baton Rouge Parish Department of Public Works ordered most of its crews to “shelter in place” rather than dispatching them to assess damage and remove debris, DPW interim Director David Guillory said Wednesday night.
DPW had “four or five” crews out Wednesday night to deal with emergencies, Guillory said.
Some of the crews were traveling with utility company personnel in case they encountered downed power lines, he said.
“We won’t be able to do a good damage assessment until tomorrow,” Guillory said Wednesday.
Guillory said he expects Isaac to leave significant damage in its wake.
He said the storm brought wind gusts of 60 mph in Baton Rouge and carried sustained winds of 45 mph.
“Considering the wind’s been blowing this hard for this long, we are going to have widespread damage,” Guillory said.
No significant flooding in East Baton Rouge Parish had been reported as of Wednesday night, but more than 120 trees were reported down, Guillory said.
Isaac was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm around 2 p.m., but high winds and heavy rain were expected to remain in the area overnight.
Mayor-President Kip Holden declared a 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. curfew in effect for Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
Officials said they would consider Thursday whether to extend the curfew through Thursday night, he said.
As of 8:30 Wednesday night, more than 650,000 Entergy customer statewide were without power, including 82,000 in East Baton Rouge Parish, according to spokeswoman Sheila Pounders.
One of two Entergy electrical feeds that power Baton Rouge General Medical Center Mid City failed on Wednesday, but that feed was being replaced by power from generators, said Nicole Kleinpeter, a spokeswoman for Baton Rouge General Medical Center.
Hospital officials are waiting for a part from out of state called a “relay switch” that is needed to balance the two electrical feeds into the hospital, Kleinpeter said. She said late Wednesday that the part should be arriving “anytime now.”
The power failure of one of the two Entergy feeds did not cause any disruption in service to patients, Kleinpeter said. She said the hospital was still treating and accepting emergency patients Wednesday night.
Entergy crews were aware of the problem and were working to restore power to the hospital, said Sheila Pounders, an Entergy spokeswoman.
Extended rains and additional storm surge could lead to extensive flooding across much of southern Livingston Parish, according to fire department officials.
The National Weather Service issued flood warnings Wednesday for the Amite River at Bayou Manchac Point and Denham Springs.
The Bayou Manchac warning was from late Wednesday until further notice while the Denham Springs warning was from late Thursday night to Sunday evening.
The Amite River at Bayou Manchac is expected to rise above flood stage Thursday morning and will continue to rise to a stage near 13 feet on Sunday afternoon.
The Amite at Denham Springs is expected to rise above flood stage by Friday morning and will continue to rise to near 32.5 feet by Saturday morning. The river will fall below flood stage by Sunday afternoon.
A noontime check of a Killian water gauge on the Tickfaw River showed the river up 4.1 feet and Livingston Parish District 2 Fire Chief Brian Drury said he expected to see another few feet before the day was over.
Anything above 5 to 5.5 feet would cause extensive flooding in the area, he said.
The King’s Point subdivision already was seeing flooding early Wednesday afternoon, with Cypress Drive, which parallels the river, completely submerged.
The Amite River also was on the rise Wednesday, with waters coming up onto the banks near the Clio Bridge on La. 22. The water was expected to overtake at least part of the highway on the west side of the bridge by 5 p.m., said Mark Harrell, Livingston Parish director of emergency preparedness.
Drury was particularly concerned about those projections, which could mean splitting of his fire district in half.
If La. 22 becomes impassable, District 2 firefighters will have to split up between Springfield and Killian — with no way to come to each other’s aid at the two ends, he said.
Serving flooded areas like King’s Point could also prove difficult for a district that doesn’t yet have a boat from which to fight fires or rescue residents.
“If the water comes up as predicted, we’ll have a hundred homes we can’t access by fire truck,” Drury said.
The district has bought a boat for just such a purpose, but it is not yet equipped with a motor and pumper, Drury said. Outfitting the rig will cost $30,000-$40,000, and grants for such projects have been few and far between, he said.
Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said East Ascension drainage workers pumped down the level of water in area bayous to create storage capacity.
Parish officials believe Isaac will be a “huge rain event,” but parish employees are manning the pumps 24 hours per day, Martinez said.
He also expressed some concern about 8-foot tides expected in Lake Maurepas as Hurricane Isaac draws closer and said the water levels would be monitored.
He noted that Hurricane Gustav in 2008 came within three feet of over-topping the critical Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station in the McElroy Swamp.
The station drains 76 square miles of East Ascension. Overtopping would shut down the station’s five 1,000-cubic-feet-per-second pumps and result in major flooding west all the way toward Airline Highway, Martinez said.
Bill Roux, East Ascension Drainage director, said 8-foot tides on Lake Maurepas mean likely 4- to 6-foot tides at the pumping station because swamp and marsh between the lake and the station hold a lot of that water.
Roux said his concern is the tides will rise in the coming days; the tides can act like a dam, blocking rainfall draining from the upper Amite River Basin and forcing the rain runoff to back up into tributaries in Ascension Parish.
Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess said storm surge has pushed water from Lake Ponchartrain over the railroad tracks at Manchac.
“I’m really worried about the homes and business there,” Burgess said Wednesday night. “Right now is the worst I’ve seen all day in terms of rain and wind.”
Advocate staff writers David Mitchell, Heidi Kinchen and Bob Anderson contributed to this report.