New Orleans braced Monday for another major tropical storm almost seven years after Hurricane Katrina swamped the fabled US home of jazz, leaving a surreal sprawl of destruction and death.
The storm churned toward the northern Gulf of Mexico coast with sustained winds of 65 miles (100 kilometers) per hour, and could reach hurricane force within 24 hours, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center warned at 1200 GMT.
Early Monday, Isaac was swirling 185 miles (295 kilometers) southwest of Fort Myers, Florida, heading across the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where it was expected to gather punch.
Forecasters fretted about a slow-moving storm dumping up to 18 inches (46 cemtimeters) of rain on southeastern Louisiana, southern Alabama, Mississippi and the western Florida panhandle.
Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama issued emergency warnings on Sunday, 24 hours after Isaac forced the main program of the US Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, to be curtailed by one day.
Ahead of Isaac’s expected landfall late Tuesday or Wednesday along the Gulf Coast, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ordered mandatory evacuations in the southern counties of Mobile and Baldwin.
In Louisiana, home to New Orleans, Governor Bobby Jindal recommended voluntary evacuations within the hurricane watch area.
Isaac was heading west-northwest towards Louisiana at 14 miles (22 kilometers) per hour and a hurricane warning was in place for populated areas including New Orleans.
“Under current forecasts, New Orleans may feel winds as early as Monday night, with heavy weather Tuesday and Wednesday,” said city mayor Mitch Landrieu declaring an emergency and urging officials to prepare for the worst.
The NHC said “preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” in all areas subject to the hurricane warning.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Mississippi-Louisiana border on August 29, 2005 — eventually killing around 1,800 people in New Orleans, a city famed for its jazz, easy going atmosphere and Creole cuisine.
It was the third deadliest US hurricane on record.
Though 1.4 million residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate as the monster storm approached, many could not or would not and were left stranded.
A lack of preparation and bungled coordination forced residents to take shelter in attics, and then break through their roofs to escape rising water.
Sunday’s emergency declarations indicated the importance of official efforts to safeguard the city, as Isaac brought rain and choppy seas to the Florida Keys after battering Haiti and Cuba over the weekend.
In Haiti, the death toll from Isaac surged to 19 as reports of damage and destruction trickle in from remote areas, authorities said.
Isaac tore over Haiti on Saturday, visiting renewed misery in an impoverished country where an estimated 400,000 people still live in tent camps more than two years after a catastrophic 2010 earthquake killed 250,000 people.
“Some strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours and Isaac is expected to become a hurricane in a day or so,” the NHC said.
A hurricane warning for the Florida Keys and parts of the state’s southwest coast was reduced to a tropical storm warning, though Republicans had already postponed the planned Monday start of their gathering in Tampa.
The NHC also warned that that Isaac could spawn “isolated tornadoes” over Central and Southern Florida on Monday.
The delegate roll call for Mitt Romney to be formally nominated to take on President Barack Obama in the November 6 election will now take place Tuesday, after Monday’s program was repackaged into a tighter schedule due to the storm.
Party officials stressed that the prime time speaking slots on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, including speeches by Romney, his wife Ann and running-mate Paul Ryan, remained unchanged.
While the show in Tampa will go on, Louisiana could be in the eye of the storm by Tuesday or Wednesday, depriving Republicans of the spotlight.
Footage of desperate Americans in New Orleans, waving signs reading “Help Us,” horrified people at home and abroad in 2005, while in the Lower Ninth Ward — the poorest part of the city — bodies drifted by in the floodwater.
Many fled to the Superdome, the stadium where 10,000 people displaced by the hurricane had already sought refuge, but it too became cut off by the water.
Finally, the National Guard was deployed, and managed to restore a semblance of order, helping coordinate airlifts and bus evacuations that scattered survivors across the country.