PEARL, Miss. - Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has declared a state of emergency as officials prepare for a hit from what's now Tropical Storm Isaac.
Weather forecasters told Bryant and other state officials meeting Sunday at the state Emergency Operations Center that tropical storm winds could begin along the Mississippi coast Monday night and could last into Wednesday. National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb told Bryant on a conference call that forecasters expect Isaac to strengthen into a hurricane and drive a storm tide of 6 to 12 feet into coastal estuaries. Coastal areas could also get 12 to 16 inches of rain and be subject to tropical storm-force winds for as long as 36 hours beginning late Monday.
Knabb said forecasters are still having a hard time predicting where Isaac's center will make landfall. It could come ashore Wednesday morning, seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina killed more than 200 Mississippians and caused billions of dollars in damage. Bryant, at a news conference Sunday evening, said that Isaac seems to be on the same track and offers the same possibility for storm tides and damage to inland parts of the state.
"There are too many similarities not to be concerned," Bryant said.
Until Saturday, officials had mainly been watching, with a projected track that showed that Mississippi would probably be on the west side of the storm. But computer models jogged Isaac's expected path to the west, putting Mississippi's 80-mile coast at greater risk.
"It kind of caught everybody off guard a little bit," Terry Jackson, deputy director of the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency, said earlier Sunday
Because the storm is so wide - storm force winds extend 200 miles from the center - Mississippi may be affected even if the center hits in Louisiana, Alabama or the Florida Panhandle.
At 7 p.m. CDT Sunday, authorities on the coast were handing out sandbags in many locations. Leaders in coastal counties said they could order evacuations Monday morning, but Bryant was already warning people who live in low-lying areas to leave.
"The best thing to do in a storm like this is to get out," he said.
Officials urged evacuees to find friends and relatives inland to stay with, saying hotels were already filling up and urging people to leave public shelters available for those with no other place to go. Some shelters are supposed to open Monday afternoon. State EMA Director Robert Latham said officials were concerned because some people might not have enough money to evacuate, although he said the state was working on ways to pick people up who are in harm's way.
George Manemann, the harbormaster for Gulfport's small craft harbor, said about 50 of the 100 vessels based there had already sailed away Sunday afternoon, seeking refuge in back bays. Gulfport's old harbor was destroyed by Katrina, and the new one opened about a year ago. Like many structures along the coast replaced after Katrina, Manemann said the new harbor should be more hurricane-resistant, with concrete pilings and deck boards fastened with stainless steel screws.
Still, he said the possibility of being hit on the anniversary of Katrina is eerie.
"How weird is that?" Manemann asked.
Hancock County is especially vulnerable to storm surge because of geography. The National Weather Service said there was a chance of storm tide along almost the entire Mississippi coast, as well as in parts of Louisiana east of the mouth of the Mississippi. That broad V-shaped area can catch the water that a hurricane shoves in, having the effect of magnifying the height of a storm surge.
Hancock County EMA Director Brian Adam said evacuation orders may get more credence than they did before 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
"I think more people will take the warnings more seriously and believe the water can get where it got to during Katrina," he said.
John Collins, pastor of Pearlington Christian Church and an employee of the local water authority, said he warned a smaller-than-usual congregation Sunday morning to get ready. Collins is sending his own family inland, but is staying behind to work with the local volunteer fire department. Pearlington, on the Louisiana state line, was among the areas hardest hit by Katrina.
"There is that anxiety, but there's also the ambition to help," Collins said.
Some things will be semi-normal Monday. Schools will open and flights are still scheduled to continue at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. Casinos are open until the Mississippi Gaming Commission orders them closed.
Huntington Ingalls Industries, which runs the 10,000-employee Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, said morning shift employees should report as usual Monday but urged second-shift and third-shift workers to monitor announcements. Ingalls said its smaller Gulfport facility would be closed except for essential personnel.
Chevron Corp. said it was closely monitoring Isaac's path but said operations continue at its Pascagoula refinery, the largest owned by the San Ramon, Calif., oil giant. Chevron told its local employees that it could take further steps if forecasts predict wind speeds above 60 mph at the refinery.
But at the port of Gulfport, officials were hauling away 1,000 containers and trailers to higher ground, director Don Allee said. He said ships would be gone by dawn and the port would close.
Emergency managers sent an advance team to the coast Sunday and plan to deploy the remainder of their 40-person emergency response team Monday. The Mississippi National Guard also deployed liaisons to the coastal counties' emergency operations centers.
If Louisiana officials order an evacuation of New Orleans, Mississippi would reverse the southbound lanes of Interstate 55 and Interstate 59, to allow four lanes of northbound traffic. I-59 would be reversed to a point south of Hattiesburg, while I-55 would be reversed to a point near Brookhaven. U.S. 49, the main highway running north from Mississippi's coast, would not be reversed because it does not have controlled access like an interstate.