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Hurricane Isaac wallops La. coastal areas

NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Isaac sidestepped New Orleans yesterday, sending the worst of its howling wind and heavy rain into a cluster of rural fishing villages that had few defenses against the slow-moving storm that could bring days of unending rain.

Isaac arrived exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina and passed slightly to the west of New Orleans, where the city's fortified levee system easily handled the assault.

The city's biggest problems seemed to be downed power lines, scattered tree limbs and minor flooding, and state officials said up to 700,000 people were affected by power outages.

Just one person was reported killed, compared with 1,800 deaths from Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. While police reported few problems with looting, Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

But in Plaquemines Parish, a sparsely populated area south of the city that is outside the federal levee system, dozens of people were stranded in flooded coastal areas. The storm pushed water over an 18-mile levee; state officials said they would cut a hole in it as soon as weather allowed to relieve the strain.

"I'm getting text messages from all over asking for help," said Joshua Brockhaus, an electrician who was rescuing neighbors in his boat. "I'm dropping my dogs off, and I'm going back out there."

By midafternoon, Isaac had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

The Louisiana National Guard wrapped up rescue operations in Plaquemines Parish, saying it felt confident it had gotten everyone out and that there were no serious injuries. But the Guard will stay in the area over the coming days to help, said National Guard spokesman Capt. Lance Cagnolatti.

Isaac's maximum sustained winds had decreased to 60 mph Wednesday evening. Even at its strongest, Isaac was far weaker than Katrina, which crippled New Orleans in 2005. Because Isaac's coiled bands of rain and wind were moving at only 5 mph, the threat of storm surges and flooding was expected to last into a second night as the storm system crawled across Louisiana.

"We didn't think it was going to be like that," Brockhaus said. "The storm stayed over the top of us. For Katrina, we got 8 inches of water. Now we have 13 feet."

"I think a lot of people were caught with their pants down," said Jerry Larpenter, sheriff in nearby Terrebonne Parish. "This storm was never predicted right since it entered the Gulf. It was supposed to go to Florida, Panama City, Biloxi, New Orleans. We hope it loses its punch once it comes in all the way."

In coastal Mississippi, wildlife officers used motorboats Wednesday to rescue at least two dozen people from a neighborhood Isaac flooded in Pearlington.

Back in New Orleans, the storm canceled remembrance ceremonies for those killed by Katrina. Since that catastrophe, the city's levee system has been bolstered by $14 billion in federal repairs and improvements. The bigger, stronger levees were tested for the first time by Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

Isaac came ashore late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, with 80 mph winds near the mouth of the Mississippi River. It drove a wall of water nearly 11 feet high inland.

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