Editor's note: This post has been updated, after it was originally written prior to hurricane Isaac's landfall in New Orleans. Watch "Starting Point" at 7am on CNN for the latest on Isaac's track.
By "Starting Point" anchor Soledad O'Brien
The concrete is so clean on the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal/Surge Barrier that it looks like they poured it yesterday. But the roiling clouds above it made it clear why it's completion in May was critical. It's about to face its first test.
They call it "the wall." It's a two mile stretch of concrete that's designed to keep the waters from the Gulf of Mexico from flooding into Lake Borgne then inundating New Orleans neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward. A surge that took that same path destroyed homes and left a trail of dead during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
This massive post-Katrina effort by the Army Corps of Engineers with three 150' gates began in 2009. On Tuesday, the two doors were closed for the first time in anticipation of Hurricane Isaac.
"Last time the surge went into Lake Bourne and into the heart of the city," Col. Edward Fleming of the US Army Corps of Engineers tells me. "This wall is built to 26 feet high and we expect to see surge 8 to 10, maybe 15 feet."
While some Louisiana residents are planning on riding out hurricane Isaac, there are lots of folks outside of the levee system say they are going to go. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has acknowledged there is a higher level of anxiety in the city because Wednesday is the seven-year anniversary of hurricane Katrina.
Mayor Landrieu joins Soledad on "Starting Point" this morning, explaining that the speed of the water that Isaac may bring to his city.
"For the folks around the country, one of the things they may not be aware of is the difference on the ground between a one or two or three," Mayor Landrieu says. "Obviously, a three is more serious. The levee system that we have now is designed to protect us against a category three or bigger. So we have $10 billion of investments, 300 miles of new levees, a robust system of pumps designed for a category three or bigger. And we feel pretty comfortable given what we've all been through that we can withstand that kind of push from outside in. But we have a lot of areas that are outside of the levee control system, outside of New Orleans. So we have a lot of concerns down in Grand Isle and in some areas of New Orleans."
"The problem that storms like that pose is they dump a lot of water quick. And no matter how good your pumping system is, if you drop a lot of water and it continues over a long period of time and it's intense, that will create flooding. So we're worried about that. We're worried about electrical outages. So you remember from Gustav there was an electrical outage that moved throughout the middle of the country and stayed with us for a couple of weeks. Those are our two major concerns right now. We are prepared for them, but that doesn't make them easy," Landrieu says.
Landrieu says one of the most important storm preps is common sense from his citizens. He also says communications have improved significantly since Katrina.
"It's 1,000 percent better.... all of this is still driven by citizens doing the right thing at the right time in the right place with common sense. The more that doesn't happen, and the more the emergency response has to go to places where they shouldn't have to, it drains resources. So this is an all-in game," he adds.
New Orleans (CNN) - Tropical Storm Isaac is close to becoming a hurricane and is expected to make landfall as a Category 1 storm Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said.
It is forecast to hit near the southwest pass of the Mississippi River and move slowly across the region, pounding a large swath of the Gulf Coast with heavy rain and gashing winds.
Residents in New Orleans are obviously watching the weather closely, even folks outside of the Gulf Coast certainly, hoping that improvements to the levee system since hurricane Katrina are going to hold.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) talks with Soledad on "Starting Point" this morning, saying that the state is fairly comfortable it will handle what Isaac brings.
"I want to thank the people for the United States for the tremendous investments they have made along with us for one of the finest levee systems in the world," Landrieu says. "We invested $14.5 billion...to protect us from a category 2 or 3. We believe this will be a 1. But it's not just the storm surge that I want people to really understand. It's the internal drainage that's so important from this area."
Landrieu explains there are 78 water pumps in a four-parish area that have been improved and upgraded since Katrina. Landrieu says the system near the surge barrier can pump an Olympic sized swimming pool in four seconds.
"Katrina brought such a storm surge that people think of hurricanes as only a storm surge situation. But you can have a hurricane like this, which is not very powerful, but it is large, dump a tremendous amount of water, whether it's on Louisiana or Carolina or parts of Florida, and do tremendous devastation, because you've got to have that internal drainage system. That's why since hurricane Betsy, we've been fighting for full funding for SELA, the Southeastern Louisiana Flood Control Protection. And unfortunately, we're less than halfway through that. So it's not just levees. It's not jump storm surge. It's pumping capacity which is important," Landrieu says.
Landrieu also says FEMA has been in good contact with the state in advance of Isaac.
"It's a completely new FEMA, completely new Homeland Security Department that exists now. The FEMA that we have now is smarter, it's stronger, and it's more cooperative," she says. "They have been contacting local elected officials literally for days. The president himself had a conversation with the governor, the mayor of New Orleans and the local officials just yesterday. So everyone is leaning forward and prepared for what we hope will not be serious, but you never know with these kinds of storms."
Governments, business and residents in New Orleans and the central Gulf coast rushed Tuesday to complete last-minute preparations to bear the brunt of hurricane Isaac. The storm was expected to make landfall late Tuesday after gaining hurricane strength earlier in the day.
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has not issues an evacuation order for the city as tropical storm Isaac nears landfall but he's urging residents outside the levee system to leave.
"If your plan is to go, now's the time to go," he told residents. Of course, there are some who are insisting on riding out the storm. Landrieu has acknowledged there is a higher level of anxiety in the city because Wednesday marks seven years since hurricane Katrina devastated the area.
On Monday, Soledad talks with Jackie Grosch, a resident of St. Bernard Parish who has decided to stay. Soledad first met Jackie in 2005 right after hurricane Katrina, when her house was destroyed.
"It gets old after a while," Jackie says of the repeated evacuation orders. "Packing up and taking journey to where we're going to go. You have to find somewhere to go so we decided to stay. We thought about it and decided to stay."
Jackie tells Soledad they made the decision to hunker down on the second floor of their home. Their supplies include chips, dips, Oreo cookies and peanuts.
"We have a generator. We have our weather radio and we have a cordless TV. So we have something to keep up on everything. We were just getting our life jackets. We're going to have life jackets just in case. But, you know, we have our wall now...It's amazing. That's going to protect us because that's where it came through the last time."
She adds, "this is the test. I don't know if it's going to be a true test because they are saying it's not going to be that bad. Of course, you never know what bad is, we didn't think Katrina was bad either."
Another resident, Angela Young, evacuated a day before Katrina hit in 2005. Her hosue was submerged beneath 8 feet of water. This time, she is going to ride out Isaac in her home.
"I have been monitoring the parish officials and listening to what they are saying on the news, paying attention to what the mayor is saying, for the particular parish that I live in. We have Mayor Landrieu. And also listening to what they're saying about the levees. And they're saying we're going to be ok. I trust that we're going to be fine," Young says.
Young tells Soledad she's not anxious about the storm.
"We're fine. We stocked up on water and nonperishable food items, batteries and things of that nature, to help us in case we lose power. I think that the worst it's going to get in New Orleans east is we'll be without power for a little while," she says.
Young adds, "a lot of people are staying. And, again, when I talked to people, they are saying that they are watching the news and watching where the eye of the storm is going to be. You know, everybody is saying that we're going to be ok, so a lot of people have decided to ride the storm out."
Watch "Starting Point" for the latest on hurricane Isaac as it makes its way towards the Gulf Coast.
As Isaac nears the Gulf coast, there's a mandatory evacuation in place in Lousiana's Plaquemines Parish. Nearly 90% of that parish was flooded during Hurricane Katrina.
Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, talks with Soledad O'Brien on "Starting Point" this morning, sharing what his parish has learned since Katrina and how the city is preparing for Isaac. Nungesser shares his biggest concerns as Isaac nears the Gulf Coast.
"We have two levees that are not in the federal system, the east and west bank and 5 feet on one side of the river, 8 on the other. Storm surge expected to be 10 or 11 feet," Nungesser says. "We're going to see water over tops of the levees and we'll see the storm weaken hopefully and not top the levees, but the way it looks we're going to have water.
Nungesser is also concerned that settled oil from the BP spill could be redistributed on the delicate marsh areas.
"There's so much thick oil on the bottom," he says. "We see it kick up ever for a thunderstorm. So this type of event absolutely will take some of that oil and put it back in the marsh. You won't see the thick oil like during the oil spill. But you can see it, the thin oil through the marsh and it still does affect the wildlife in the marsh. You don't see those birds covered in oil, but any oil is not good for animals out there. So we're real concerned and after this event we'll be out there to check those heavily impacted areas to see how much oil does get kicked up back into the marsh."
Nungesser says one thing that has greatly improved since Katrina is planning and preparation for a storm like Isaac. He says people feel safer since Katrina because they're more prepared.
With just hours to go before tropical storm Isaac makes landfall, governments, businesses and residents in New Orleans and on the central Gulf Coast are rushing to get ready for the storm.
Folks living in New Orleans are hoping that $10 billion in improvements to the levee system since hurricane Katrina in 2005 will hold during what is now the first real test. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) went out with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Monday to tour the levees, and tells Soledad on "Starting Point" this morning that everything seems ready to withstand Isaac.
"All of preparations seem really strong," Vitter says. "We'll see how everything goes. Apparently this won't be a very, very strong test, knock on wood because it will remain a relatively weak hurricane. We're hoping for that. It will be an important test for the system."
Vitter tells Soledad that he has evacuated his own family, even though many residents have decided not to leave their homes.
"I think that's reasonable given the strength of the storm. I got them out of town so I could do my work and I knew they were safe. Given this nature of this storm, I think it's reasonable that most people would stay," Vitter says.
Despite all the preparations, Vitter says there are a few things that still concern him before Isaac arrives.
"My biggest concern is not with the system that's been built since Katrina. It's with all of the areas outside that system. We really built the system for the last storm. There are major populated areas outside of that system, Western St. Charles, lower Jefferson, those are very, very vulnerable areas with significant population in them," Vitter says.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas on the city's preps for Isaac after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Tropical Storm Isaac could make landfall in New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. With the storm taking a very similar track to the 2005 hurricane, voluntary evacuations have been declared for 15 parishes in Louisiana with a mandatory evacuation in place for St. Charles and the east bank of Plaquemines Parish. Isaac could make landfall as a category 1 hurricane in New Orleans during the anniversary.
During that devastating storm in 2005, 1,700 people died in that entire area, and about 1,300 lost their lives in New Orleans. Neighborhoods were completely destroyed. At one point, 85% of that city was underwater. It was most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have spent approx. $10 billion trying to strengthen the defenses in case a storm like that should hit the area again. Isaac's landfall will be the first real test as to how well the money was spent.
Soledad delves into New Orleans's storm readiness with retired US Army Lieutenant Gen. Russel Honore, who was in charge of the Katrina disaster relief in 2005 and wrote about his experience in the book "Survival."
Honore says despite significant improvements to the infrastructure in and around New Orleans, even a category 1 storm could overpower the city.
"$14 billion of federal money was committed for the levee improvement," Honore says. "They've spent $10 billion. They have about $4 billion left to spend in improving and armoring the levees and completing improvements down at Plaquemines Parish. They also replaced all the pumps, Soledad. When we went into Katrina, the pumps dated back to 1936. We now have modern pumps and a quote from the Corps of Engineers. We have the largest drainage pump in the world on the west bank in New Orleans. It's functional and operational."
"All that being said," Honore adds, "people need to be cautious because anything built by man can be destroyed by mother nature. People still need to listen to local officials, if you're outside of the levee system, you need to be evacuating today."
Honore also says that a more active local government could also help steer the city from another widespread disaster.
"One of the issues of politicians get into is they start preaching category of storm and people go into the data bank say it's just a Category 1. Politicians coming out more and more and saying, this area will flood, you need to move by a certain time. People without rides, you need to go to this location and be prepared to evacuate. Evacuate your animals. If they are going to do a contra-flow out of New Orleans, they are telling people when that will start. So I think there's more specific information going out about the potential effects of the storm as opposed to just talking about category," Honore says.
"People need to listen if their area is projected to be in a flood zone or it will flood based on rain or from tidal surge. You know we lose more homes every year to flooding than we do any other event in America," Honore says.