An immediate mass evacuation has been ordered as officials said a dam near the Louisiana-Mississippi border was about to break, threatening as many as 60,000 people as Tropical Storm Isaac continues to rage inland.
Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess issued an emergency alert warning of the ‘imminent failure’ of the dam at Lake Tangipahoa in Percy Quinn State Park in Mississippi. He ordered residents between the towns of Kentwood and Robert to evacuate by 1.30 p.m. ET.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has ordered buses to the area to help evacuate residents due to rising waters on the river. Although it is an area just 100 miles north of New Orleans, the city is not in imminent danger.
The warning comes after Isaac smashed into the Gulf Coast with winds of up to 80 mph on Tuesday night, rattling towns, swamping thousands of homes and businesses, leaving 930,000 people without power in Louisiana – and terrifying residents on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
A tow truck driver was killed on Thursday morning after a tree fell on his vehicle as heavy rain and strong winds terrorised Picayne, Mississippi, just across the state line from Louisiana. His name has not been released.
Even as Isaac weakened on its slow trek north from the coast on Thursday, it continued to whirl up life-threatening weather including storm surges, inland flooding from torrential rain and potential tornadoes.
Amid the chaos and destruction, a father-son duo saved dozens of lives in their small Louisiana town after plucking neighbours and their pets from flooded homes ravaged by the storm.
Jesse Shaffer, 25, and his 53-year-old father, also named Jesse, scooped more than 120 people to safety using their fishing boat on the flooded streets of Braithwaite, where water topped a levee on Wednesday after Isaac lumbered towards the coastal town.
Braithwaite was one of the hardest hit areas after the Plaquemines Parish levee – which was not reinforced during the multi-billion dollar levee upgrade system following Katrina – failed to keep out the storm surge.
From 5 a.m. on Wednesday, the Shaffers went from house-to-house in fishing boats, searching for anyone left stranded as floodwaters swept through the town. ABC News reported that the father and son saved up to 120 people, including some babies. They also rescued several pets.
‘They were all on there, screaming their lungs out,’ the elder Shaffer said, fighting back tears. ‘We rescued a lot of people, saw a lot of things you never thought you’d see.’
In another example of their determination the men rescued 10 people, including a baby and an elderly man, from a local auditorium. They had to smash through the attic ventilation system to reach the victims, they told ABC.
‘We had to scramble and try to find a boat ’cause none of the sheriff’s department or anybody could come to this end of the parish,’ the elder Shaffer said.
The men are victims of the storm, too. On Wednesday, water inside their home had risen to 12 feet and they had to move their belongings to the attic – which was then flooded. The water was rising six inches every four minutes, the older Shaffer said.
Parish President Billy Nungesser said U.S. Army National Guard troops and local sheriff’s office officials were going house to house through the area on Thursday to ensure that there were no deaths or injuries.
Officials rushed to evacuate more than 100 nursing home residents from Plaquemines Parish, an area with a reputation for residents hunkering down to weather storms. Even the sick and elderly are hardened storm veterans.
‘I don’t think we had to evacuate to begin with,’ said Romaine Dahl, 59, as he sat in a wheelchair. ‘The weather was a hell of a lot worse last night than it is now. And I got an idea that after all this is said and done they’re going to say everything is over with, go on back home.’
The storm continues to move north, inflicting heavy flooding on New Orleans – but residents agreed the storm, which had been a category 1 hurricane when it hit land, did not pack a fraction of the punch of Katrina, which landed as a category 3 and intensified to a devastating category 5.
City officials had announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew on Wednesday to help prevent any return of the looting that occurred in New Orleans in the days after Katrina. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu warned that the punishment for a looting conviction is harsh – a mandatory three years’ hard labor.
About a dozen looting-related arrests were reported in the city by Thursday morning but the streets were unusually quiet, littered with downed branches, trees and pieces of roofing material. The city reported about 10 inches of rain in some places.
But this morning, the sun shone on the city as business owners began taking down boards protecting their windows, yet thousands in the area were still without power.
Mark Wallace, 52, had come out to check on his store, Fancy Boutique.
‘This one just took forever,’ Wallace said of the slow-moving storm which first brought rain to New Orleans on Tuesday. ‘Usually they blow through and are done with.’
Wayne Overton, 50, a longshoreman, had come out to inspect a large, fallen tree in front of his home that had knocked down power lines.
‘This one lasted a while. It was scary,’ Overton said, noting that the storm had damaged the roof of his home. ‘There’s going to be a lot of clean up to do around here.’
West of New Orleans in St. John the Baptist Parish, flooding from Isaac forced 1,500 people to evacuate. Rising water closed off all main thoroughfares into the parish, and in many areas, water lapped up against houses and left cars stranded.