Will Hurricane Isaac rival Katrina?

The storm veers away from Tampa's Republican convention, but now it's on a path to hit New Orleans — on the seventh anniversary of another deadly hurricane

A Louisiana resident rests on his cot in a Belle Chasse hurricane shelter Aug. 27
(Image credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Forecasters no longer expect Tropical Storm Isaac to rain on the parade of Republicans gathered in Tampa to nominate Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, but that's where the good news ends. Now that the storm is veering west of Florida, it will have more time to gather strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. That means it will probably be a more powerful hurricane than previously expected by the time it finally crashes ashore. Not only that, but Isaac's new path has it headed straight toward New Orleans, with landfall expected on the seventh anniversary — to the day — of Hurricane Katrina. Is Isaac another Katrina in the making? Here, a brief guide:

How strong will Isaac be?

Originally projected to be a weak tropical storm, Isaac now could hit the Gulf Coast as a Category 2 hurricane, with sustained winds of 96 to 110 miles per hour. Still, that's not as powerful as Katrina, a Category 5 storm that was a Category 3 at landfall with winds of 125 mph. Katrina brought with it the highest storm surge ever recorded in the U.S. — nearly 28 feet at Pass Christian, Miss. — causing 1,800 deaths and nearly wiping New Orleans off the map. Even though Isaac isn't expected to pack such a devastating punch, it still poses a significant threat.

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What is the main danger?

After Katrina washed out the outdated levies that protected low-lying New Orleans, the federal government invested $14.5 billion to rebuild them. Isaac's storm surge could amount to the first test of the new flood defenses. They're designed to withstand a storm as powerful as Katrina, so they should be able to "hold back Isaac's surge," says Jeff Masters at Weather Underground, but some areas, especially those outside the levees, could be in for serious damage.

Are there other reasons for concern?

Yes. "Isaac could pose a threat to energy markets," say Michael Barak, Joseph Bastardi, and Alan Lammey at Forbes. Katrina caused $110 billion in economic losses in Louisiana and Mississippi, in part because it roared through the heart of the Gulf's oil and gas production area, destroying 113 offshore oil and gas platforms and damaging 457 pipelines. Those damages, along with storm troubles at refineries, sent pump prices soaring near $5 a gallon, which could happen again if newer "hurricane resistant" platforms fail to stand up to Isaac.

Will Gulf residents be ready?

Many people say a botched disaster response made Katrina's toll worse, so Louisiana and New Orleans officials are determined not to avoid mistakes that were made seven years ago. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have declared a preemptive state of emergency, ordering officials to make evacuation plans and prepare for the worst. The city hasn't told residents to evacuate — yet. But if the order comes, New Orleans will use buses and trains to get people out, fast. And even if the storm spares New Orleans, it's still a threat to some place on the Gulf Coast, from Florida's Panhandle to Louisiana.

Does this mean the GOP is in the clear?

Not entirely. The party has already canceled official business that had been scheduled for Monday, the opening day of what was supposed to be a four-day convention. And even though the GOP is now going forward with a reduced three-day schedule, there's still a "distinct possibility" it will have to cancel the whole show, says Glen Johnson at The Boston Globe, because if Isaac's "potentially horrid wrath" devastates the Gulf states, the GOP will have to "set aside politics" and focus, along with President Obama, on helping the people in the storm's path. "If Isaac does turn out to be a major hurricane and it does strike New Orleans," says Will Bunch at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Democrats should scrap their convention next week, too. "The government needs to mobilize for real emergencies, not for prime-time windbaggery by Joe Biden & Co."

Sources: Boston Globe, CNN, Forbes, Outside the Beltway, Philadelphia Daily News, Weather Underground (2)

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