Tropical storm Isaac set to hit US Gulf Coast

The US Gulf Coast today braced for a hurricane as tropical storm Isaac packing swirling winds and rain bore down on the region, rekindling worst nightmares of Hurricane Katrina that killed over 18,000 people in 2005.

New Orleans and others major cities of Louisiana, parts of Mississippi and Alabama were the US Gulf states on the way of Isaac and the tropical storm is fast turning into a Category 1 hurricane.

Indian-American Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal has decided to skip the Republican party's convention to focus on preparatory measures ahead of 'Isaac' which is expected to hit the state by this evening.

Rain and tropical storm force winds were expected to spread into the region in the coming hours, the US National Hurricane Center said, as computer forecast models increasingly showed the storm likely to make landfall late today near southeastern Louisiana as a full-blown hurricane.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama has given approval for federal funds for Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama for disaster recovery activities like clearing debris. Jindal said Obama yesterday called him to say that the governor's request for a pre-landfall federal disaster declaration had been approved. The approval opens up federal funding to potentially help Louisiana cope with any damage.

The ports of Mobile and New Orleans were closed and barge traffic was suspended along southern portions of the Mississippi river.

Jindal said over 4,000 National Guardsmen will be mobilised in case of emergency, but said he does not anticipate having to activate contraflow highway rules for evacuation purposes.

Isaac's slow pace means it "could actually cause more damage," the governor said, adding the storm could batter areas with tropical winds for up to 36 hours and could dump more than a foot of rain while lingering over some areas.

Isaac appeared to be taking direct aim at New Orleans, which would be a cruel blow for a city still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina which swept across the city almost exactly seven years ago on August 29, 2005, killing over 1,800 people and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Authorities encouraged thousands of residents in low-lying areas to evacuate, warning the storm could flood towns and cities in at least three US Gulf Coast states with a storm surge of up to 3.6 metres.

Isaac also threatened heavy rainfall, with possibly as much as 46 cms in areas, potentially triggering flooding in some coastal areas.  The storm was forecast to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, with top winds of 145 kph per hour.

While that would be well below the intensity of Katrina, a powerful Category 3 storm, the vast size of Isaac's slow-moving system has forecasters predicting widespread flooding.

"Even if it is a tropical storm at landfall, the large size of it will still generate significant storm surge," Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb told reporters. "That is life-threatening potentially."

Residents in coastal communities from Louisiana to Mississippi stocked up on food and water and tried to secure their homes, cars and boats.

In New Orleans, a bumper-to-bumper stream of vehicles left the city on a highway toward Baton Rouge in search of higher ground. Others prepared, or were forced, to ride the storm out.

Isaac was centred 145 miles (235 km) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River early Tuesday with top sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (110 kph) - a speed that places the storm very near hurricane status - and swirling northwest at 12 mph (19 kph).

The storm was more than 400 miles (645 km) wide and Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the worst effects may well be in Mississippi and Alabama.

After Katrina, the US Army Corps of Engineers built a USD 14.5 billion defense flood system of walls, floodgates, levees and pumps designed to protect the city against a massive tidal surge like the one that swamped New Orleans in Katrina’s wake seven years ago.

Energy companies evacuated offshore oil rigs and shut down US Gulf Coast refineries as the storm threatened to batter the country's oil refining belt.

Oil firms ferried workers in helicopters from oil platforms hundreds of miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a precaution, as of Monday afternoon, the energy industry had shut down 78 percent of Gulf of Mexico crude production and 48 percent of its natural gas production, government figures showed. 

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