By all accounts, just about everyone in southeast Louisiana performed well during Isaac — public officials, citizens and first responders. That certainly justifies a round of applause, but by no means should anyone be lulled into thinking we can handle whatever Mother Nature dishes out. We're still only one storm away from disaster, and that means we still have a lot of work to do. In fact, we must be forever vigilant and forever raising the bar — not to mention the levees.
In contrast to the wholesale failure of government at every level during and after Hurricane Katrina exactly seven years earlier, government's response to Isaac was near flawless. The feds sent FEMA representatives to the impacted areas ahead of the storm, and they hit the ground running. For once, there were more storm shelter beds than evacuees to fill them, which is much better than the other way around.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Gov. Bobby Jindal and area parish leaders projected confidence as Isaac raged. First responders also rose to the challenge. Landrieu imposed a curfew on Aug. 29, but it lasted only one night and just three people were taken to jail for violating it; three others were issued summonses rather than being hauled into jail. Overall, NOPD showed remarkable professionalism and restraint during this storm.
The level of regional cooperation across south Louisiana parishes was not unprecedented, but it was reassuring. Regional flood protection authorities (created by merging local levee boards after Katrina) dispatched crews to close hundreds of floodgates across the metro area well before Isaac came ashore. Parish leaders stayed in touch with each other as well as with their constituents throughout the storm. Technology has made a huge difference in that regard. Despite a rocky start during Tropical Storm Debby, NOLA Ready's consistent alerts proved an excellent resource for residents looking to stay safe and informed.
Citizens likewise were much better prepared, whether they chose to evacuate ahead of the storm or ride it out at home. Those who chose to leave were able to do so, although every evacuation brings some traffic snarls. What stood out most among those who stayed behind was how levelheaded people were in the face of imminent danger. Most folks were smart, prepared and handled Isaac's threats seriously but calmly — and with a sense of humor whenever possible. That's quintessentially New Orleans.
Lootings were down significantly compared to Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas said there were only 16 reported looting incidents between Tuesday, Aug. 28, and Thursday, Aug. 30. Cops arrested looters on the scene in 13 of those incidents. To put things in perspective, during the previous week cops reported 37 burglaries between Tuesday, Aug. 21, and Thursday, Aug. 23.
Thankfully, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA learned many lessons after their ignominious display of incompetence during and after Katrina. The feds since invested billions of dollars in flood protection in and around New Orleans. The success of that enhanced flood protection system during Isaac proved that investment was worth it.
While some might dismiss the Category 1-level Isaac as nothing like Katrina, it should be noted that Isaac moved a lot more slowly than did Katrina. Consequently, Isaac dumped almost as much rain as a typical Category 5 storm — just ask folks in Braithwaite and Laplace. Local flood protection officials told Gambit late last week that Isaac's storm surge was only a few feet lower than Katrina's — proving that wind velocity should never be the sole measure of a storm's potential impact. We hope Congress doesn't look at Isaac and declare "Mission Accomplished" for southeast Louisiana. Much remains to be done.
For example, the flooding in southern St. Tammany Parish underscores the need to further reduce the level of storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain. Closing off the "Mister Go" and being able to close the Intracoastal Waterway are good first steps, but now Congress needs to authorize the Corps of Engineers to design floodgates across Chef Pass and the Rigolets so Lake Pontchartrain will not "fill up" in future storms. Failure to do this exposes almost 1.5 million people to future floods. The cost of protecting all of southeast Louisiana won't be cheap, but it will be a bargain compared to future flood damages and lives lost.
This is no time to let up. If Isaac proved anything, it's the efficacy of being prepared.