KEVIN McGILL, Associated Press
MICHAEL KUNZELMAN, Associated Press
STACEY PLAISANCE, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Isaac clipped the boot of Louisiana in its first landfall on its trek northwest into Louisiana Tuesday night, bringing with it a powerful storm surge and bursts of heavy wind and rain, and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power.
Many coastal communities were all but deserted as thousands of people moved inland ahead of the storm.
In Terrebonne Parish, traffic signals swayed amid sheets of wind-driven rain. Debris littered roadways.
Farther east in Plaquemines Parish, where Isaac made landfall at 6:45 p.m., parish officials reported extensive damage. Isaac's storm surge swelled the Mississippi River from its mouth upriver to New Orleans. In parts of Plaquemines, the river was lapping at the levee top.
Power outages were widespread and expected to grow as Isaac moved inland on Wednesday.
An estimated 3,000 people were in shelters across Louisiana, state officials said.
In New Orleans, thousands of law enforcement officers and Louisiana National Guard troops were poised for possible rescue efforts. Roadways in the city's eastern sector were reported flooded and trees were down.
Earlier in the day, floodgates were closed on area waterways to block Isaac's storm surge, part of the flood protection system rebuilt with billions of dollars of federal aid after Hurricane Katrina struck seven years ago.
At a news conference Tuesday, just minutes after forecasters said Isaac hit land, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city expected a lot of rain and wind.
"Now is the time to hunker down. Now is the time to be smart," Landrieu told residents.
Isaac was moving toward the northwest and was expected to expose the city to its nastiest weather.
"Your city is secure," he said, while advising residents to use "common sense" in their final preparations.
But he expressed frustration with people who were romping through water coming over the seawall and pilling up along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. "We had some knuckleheads testing the water," Landrieu said.
He said police were "polite" in chasing them from the area. The lakefront has been closed because water is piling up against a levee that protects a residential neighborhood.
An anxious an exhausted, Mayor Tim Kerner of the village of Jean Lafitte said he expected Isaac to wreak havoc on his tiny fishing community.
Jean Lafitte — named for the buccaneer and Battle of New Orleans hero — lies just outside the levee protection system in Jefferson Parish. Under mandatory evacuation orders, most residents had left by Tuesday and buses were on hand to evacuate those without means of transportation.
As Kerner stood outside the town hall, wind gusts from Isaac's outer bands buffeted the nearby bayou.
"The beginning of the nightmare," he said.
Isaac strengthened Tuesday, though forecasters said it was likely too close to the coast to gain significant strength. The storm was arriving at the seventh anniversary of Katrina, which devastated Louisiana and Mississippi when it struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Death and destruction were widespread, and an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans flooded.
Though Isaac wasn't packing Katrina's punch, evacuations were mandatory in about a half-dozen parishes. Landrieu did not order residents to leave and many local governments chose to simply recommend that residents shelter in place.
Power providers Entergy and CLECO began reporting outages and by late Tuesday more than 200,000 customers were without electricity across Louisiana. The number was expected to grow as the storm moved inland. The Baton Rouge area was hard-hit by Hurricane Gustav in 2008, with prolonged power outages.
It was a taste of things to come, Kerner said, after Isaac wobbled a bit west of its forecast track.
"That's the bad side for us," he said. "I thought we had a shot. Now it looks like it's taking a westerly turn."
Kerner said Lafitte — which has more boats than cars — can take a 6-foot storm surge, but Isaac could push in 9 feet of water or more.
Farther south on the coast at Cocodrie, the elevated fishing camps and waterside homes were abandoned by residents seeking higher ground.
In similarly empty Little Caillou, a few people gathered at the Cecil Lapeyrouse Grocery abutting Bayou Caillout and across the highway from a small lake the locals call Lake Zero.
Darleen Savin seemed unconcerned by Isaac. "You know when to go," she said.
Grocery owner Cecil Lapeyrouse said he planned to ride out Isaac in his house next door to the store. He said he usually stays for storms, fearing theft in the storm's aftermath and the difficulty of returning once the storm has moved on.
In New Orleans, the hurricane-savvy city was taking a very business-like approach to Isaac, Some tourists said they would ride out Isaac in the French Quarter. With the airport closed until the storm passes, they were planning to make the best of it.
On the eve of the seventh anniversary of Katrina, many people said they didn't expect Isaac to approach that storm's gold standard of fear.
Still, Landrieu warned residents not to become complacent. "The city of New Orleans is on the front lines," he said.
Residents, he said, should remain calm and diligent.
Maureen McDonald, of Long Beach, Ind., strolled the French Quarter on her 80th birthday wearing a poncho and accompanied by family who traveled from three different cities to meet her in New Orleans to celebrate.
"We could have gone anywhere, but she said 'I want to go to New Orleans,'" said Mary McDonald, Maureen's daughter-in-law from Indianapolis.
"We've had the best time," said Maureen McDonald, who said she's hit many of the French Quarter's bars and munched beignets at Cafe du Monde.
Monday night, a band at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street serenaded her with renditions of "Happy Birthday" and "Hello Maureen" lyrics in place of "Hello Dolly."
"I've had an absolute ball," she said. "The storm hasn't slowed us down. We're having the best time."
Maureen's son, Bob McDonald, of Michigan City, Ind., said the group considered canceling the trip, but the thought passed quickly.
"We just figured why not get the full New Orleans experience, hurricane and all," he said.
As they walked through the French Quarter Tuesday morning, they took pictures of media trucks parked near Bourbon Street and businesses boarding up windows.
"We're just waiting for something to happen," Bob McDonald said.
McGill reported from Cocodrie, La.; Plaisance reported from Jean Lafitte, La., and Kunzelman reported from New Orleans.