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Hurricane Isaac grows stronger, should reach Louisiana tonight

Isaac turned into an 80-mile-per-hour Category 1 hurricane Tuesday and took aim at southeastern Louisiana, leaving health and flood warnings in its wake in South Florida.

At 5 p.m., Hurricane Isaac was “getting better organized as it nears southeastern Louisiana,” The National Hurricane Center advised. Meteorologists put the storm 105 miles south-southeast of New Orleans and 30 miles south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River. But it was moving at 8 mph. At that rate it could reach New Orleans Wednesday morning.

“Flooding from storm surge and rainfall expected,” the Hurricane Center warned.

Isaac reached Category 1 hurricane strength with sustained winds of 75 mph at 12:20 p.m..

Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, warned that Isaac will be a slowly unfolding event, with the strongest portion likely to be parked over the Gulf Coast for up to two days. Forecasters expect seven to 14 inches of rain across a broad area from southeastern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, and up to 20 inches in spots. Those estimate could rise if Isaac slows more than expected.

“When the comes ashore some time tonight, somewhere in Louisiana or Mississippi, that will not be the end,” Knabb said during an early afternoon conference call with reporters. “It will be the beginning.”

Hurricane warnings were in effect east of Morgan City, La., to the Mississippi-Alabama border as of the 11 a.m. Hurricane Center report.

It downgraded to Tropical Storm warning status the strip of land from the Mississippi-Alabama border eastward to Destin, Fl.

Health Departments in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties issued public health warnings on Tuesday morning, urging the public to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes because of mosquito-borne illness.

Tropical Storm Isaac left standing water. So the health authorities issued “Drain and Cover” alerts — advising the public to drain water accumulation in a range of places from birdbaths to gutters and garbage cans and to meantime use clothing, screen doors and safe repellants as precautions against mosquito bites.

“West Nile Virus, St. Louis Encephalitis, Eastern Equine Encephalitis and Dengue Fever are known diseases carried by mosquitoes,” said a Broward alert. “Taking appropriate precautions will help to prevent mosquito-borne diseases.”

On the upside, Isaac’s rain helped refill Lake Okeechobee, with lake levels rising three-quarters of a foot in two days.

It could continue to rise as runoff flows into the lake as well.

The National Weather Service extended a flood warning for most of Broward County and all metropolitan Palm Beach County until 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. Forecasters said the atmosphere remain moist from Isaac and more conducive to firing up afternoon thunderstorms.

On Tuesday, flood waters were still high in Central West Palm, which was the wettest spot in South Florida. Isaac dumped more than 11 inches on Northeast Broward and from five to eight inches along the coast from Homestead to Jupiter.

Robert Molleda, a weather service meteorologist, said West Palm Beach set a two-day record for rainfall with just over nine inches on Sunday and Monday — making it the soggiest August ever there — with a record 22.28 inches of rain. That broke a 1995 record of 20.12 inches.

Isaac caused isolated floods in Pembroke Pines and Lauderhill, but city officials reported Tuesday that those areas had largely drained.

In Pembroke Pines, public works crews spent Monday and Tuesday removing storm debris from street drainage grates, and cleaning up fallen trees and palm fronds. The city experienced some isolated street flooding from Isaac’s rains, said Shawn Denton, public works director, but “Not anything I would call significant flooding.’’

“It was random,” Denton said. “Some random streets where swales or drains got clogged, in some cases we had to shovel it out.”

Isaac’s projected landfall as Category 1 hurricane kept it well below the intensity of Katrina, 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 Washington, President Barack Obama urged Gulf Coast residents to listen to local authorities and follow their directions as Tropical Storm Isaac approaches. “We are dealing with a big storm” that could cause significant flooding and other damage, he said in brief remarks from the White House.

“Now is not the time to tempt fate,” Obama said. “Now is not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously.”

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.”

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.

Hurricane center projected storm surges at 11 a.m. ranged from 6-12 feet in Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana to 3-6 feet in the Florida Panhandle and 1-3 feet along the remainder of Florida’s West Coast.

In South Florida, Florida Power & Light said that at 2 p.m. it had yet to restore power to 7,000 customers in Miami-Dade County, 2,730 in Broward and 2,600 in Palm Beach.

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.”

The work was complicated Monday by powerful squalls that pounded Southeast Florida from the far-off storm.

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.

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.

Miami Herald staff writers Daniel Chang, Cammy Clark, Hannah Sampson, Christina Veiga, Laura Isensee, Lazaro Gamio, Susan Cocking, Kathleen McGrory and Jacqueline Charles in Haiti contributed to this report

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