Tropical Storm Isaac wasn’t quite done with South Florida on Monday, flooding neighborhoods and knocking out power to tens of thousands of homes with intense rain squalls spun from its center, 350 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. Palm Beach County was hit hardest, awash in more than a foot of rain.
Worse was in store for the Gulf Coast, where New Orleans lay near dead center of a looming hurricane strike Tuesday evening, just a day short of the seventh anniversary of catastrophic Hurricane Katrina.
By 8 a.m. Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said Isaac slowed down a bit but remained a 70-mph storm, but it was expected to make landfall as 90-mph, Category 1 storm.
Broward County remains on a flood watch through Tuesday evening and rain bands continued to drench the coast of South Florida Tuesday morning.
Isaac's projected landfall as Category 1 hurricane would keep it well below Katrina’s intensity, but it was still a sprawling, slow-moving system capable of inundating a 300-mile wide swath from Louisiana marshes to the Panhandle beaches with a wall of sea water and drenching storms.
In a region bulldozed by hurricanes Katrina and Ivan in the past decade, the anxiety was growing. Pensacola Beach, a slender barrier island dotted with hotels, ice cream parlors and kitschy tourist attractions, was all but abandoned Monday after Escambia County ordered an evacuation.
Michelle Newell, 43, had lugged out furniture, boarded windows, raised her washing machine on bricks and surrounded her home with 160 sandbags — filled with sand swept onto the property by Ivan in 2004.
“I’ve done everything I can,” said Newell, sweat running down her face. “There’s nothing left to do but wait.”
In New Orleans, now protected by billions of dollars in stronger levees and large pumps, Mayor Mitch Landrieu was confident his city was prepared and he urged residents to hunker down. With Isaac forecast to remain below major Category 3 strength, there were no plans to evacuate the city.
“It’s going to be all right,” Landrieu told reporters.
But emergency managers in four states — Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida — ordered vulnerable coastal communities to evacuate and declared states of emergency.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said supplies had already been moved into place and he urged residents not to underestimate Isaac.
“People are too focused on where they think it’s going to make landfall,” Fugate said during a conference call. “It’s going to have effects well away from the center of circulation.”
NHC director Rick Knabb said Isaac could push storm surge up to 12 feet high near its core. With Isaac expected to slow to a crawl, it could rain for nearly two days on the Gulf Coast, with up to 18 inches possible in the worst spots.
“A slow-moving, large system poses a lot of problems regardless of how strong it is,” Knabb said.
In the Caribbean, Isaac’s death toll continued to grow, reaching 19 in Haiti, which was still assessing damage, along with two more victims in the Dominican Republic swept away in an engorged river.
In South Florida, Isaac’s impact was topped by continued power outages, made more frustrating because Isaac’s top gusts never reached hurricane speed. Florida Power & Light said thousands of homes and businesses in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties remained in the dark.
FPL said crews had been out since Sunday, although high winds and rain made some repairs difficult. “A lot of people get misled by not seeing a truck in their neighborhood,’’ said spokesman Richard Gibbs. “I can tell you there are a ton of people working behind the scenes to get power restored.”
Powerful squalls also continued to stream across Southeast Florida from the far-off storm, placing much of South Florida under flood and flash-flood watches.
Broward Emergency Operations Director Chuck Lanza said weather proved “much worse today” than when Isaac was at its closest on Sunday.
“We don’t want people out driving if they can avoid it,” Lanza cautioned. “In some areas, you can’t tell where the street ends and where the canal starts. It’s dangerous.”
The flooding was widespread but worst in western Palm Beach County neighborhoods such as The Acreage and Wellington, where roads and yards were reported underwater. The South Florida Water Management District reported pumping a record volume out of the C-51 canal there — 9,600 cubic feet of water per second, enough to fill an Olympic pool every 10 seconds.
Monday’s rains came on top of the wettest 24 hours for the district since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, said spokesman Gabe Margasak. From Sunday to Monday morning, Isaac dumped an average of nearly 3.5 inches across South Florida, with many areas seeing far more. The National Weather Service recorded 13 inches in Greenacres in western Palm Beach, nearly 11 in Miramar, 8.5 in Fort Lauderdale just over 8 inches at Homestead Air Force Base.
But as Isaac moved away, South Florida slowly returned to a normal routine.
Schools and universities said they would reopen in Miami-Dade and Broward on Tuesday. Monroe and Palm Beach counties planned to remain closed for at least one more day.
About 158 flights were canceled and 117 were delayed at Miami International Airport as of 5 p.m., mostly from American Airlines and its sister carrier, American Eagle — down from 500 the previous day.
“They can’t go from 500 flights canceled to 100 percent operations the next day,” said MIA spokesman Greg Chin. “They’re gradually bringing aircraft back.”
But by then, the focus of concern had shifted north.
In Tampa, where conditions remained uncertain, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus opened his party’s convention Monday morning in Tampa, then recessed until Tuesday less than two minutes later.
Although Isaac’s core was forecast to miss Florida, Gov. Rick Scott told state delegates at a breakfast meeting at Innisbrook Resort and Spa in Palm Harbor near Tampa that he was still worried about the Panhandle because of a soaking from Tropical Storm Debby in June.
“Our risk right now is the Panhandle,” Scott said. “It is drenched already.”
Not everyone in Pensacola seemed worried.
Clay Boyington, a 50-year-old service boat captain, spent Monday afternoon at The Oar House, a chickee-hut-style watering hole on a marshy inlet known as Bayou Chico.
As the storm clouds began to build, Boyington sipped a vodka-and-cranberry and stared out onto the Bahia Mar Marina, where he docks the 44-foot Sea Ray pleasure boat that serves as his home.
If he had his way, he said, he’d ride it out on the boat.
“It’s a really good hurricane hole,” he said, of Bayou Chico. “It’s protected from the winds and the waves can’t build up. Two big anchors and I’d be fine.”
That wasn’t an option. The marina had issued a mandatory evacuation, and Boyington was paying $440 to have his boat hauled out of the water.
“I’m spending a lot of money to make myself homeless,” he said.