Forecasters project Tropical Storm Isaac will reach hurricane strength before hitting the northern Gulf Coast early Wednesday, seven years to the day after Katrina slammed ashore near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line. Residents of low-lying coastal areas from the Florida Panhandle to southeastern Louisiana were ordered to evacuate ahead of storm surges and heavy rain, while the mayor of New Orleans — which was flooded by Katrina — acknowledged “a high level of anxiety” due to the coincidence.
But Isaac is expected to be much weaker than Katrina, a Category 3 hurricane that killed nearly 1,800 people. As of Monday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center projected Isaac would come ashore near New Orleans as a strong Category 1 storm, with top winds around 90 mph.
“The good news is, it is not a Category 3,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told reporters. “The bad news is it is a Category 1.”
New Orleans is expected to feel tropical storm force winds as soon as midnight Monday, and while the storm may veer off its currently projected course, “It seems to be settling into a pathway and a speed that is becoming predictable,” Landrieu said.
But he said the city has had $10 billion in levee improvements since Katrina and the city’s pump stations have backup generators ready in case of electrical outages.
“We believe that based on the information we have on the strength of this storm, there is nothing this storm will bring us that we are not capable of handling,” Landrieu said. “And I believe that notwithstanding the anxiety, everything will be OK.”
At 2 p.m. ET, Isaac was centered about 280 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The storm had top winds of 65 mph and was moving to the northwest at 14 mph, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported.
The projected track brings it ashore before dawn Wednesday in the marshes downriver from New Orleans. But tropical storm-force winds extended more than 200 miles from the center, and hurricane warnings stretched from Morgan City, Louisiana, to Destin, Florida.
Landrieu has not ordered an evacuation of his city, most of which is below sea level and protected by a network of levees. But he said he would “strongly urge” about 900 people who live outside the levee system to leave — and if anyone else is thinking about getting out, “now would be a good time to go.”
Others in low-lying Louisiana parishes and in coastal counties and barrier islands of Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida were told to clear out ahead of the storm. In Alabama, state Emergency Management Agency Director Art Faulkner warned that strong winds and high water may affect the Mobile area even if the storm hits as far west as Louisiana.
“It is a very large storm,” Faulkner said. “And oftentimes we confuse and focus on a specific dot that may be identified as the center of the storm when very dangerous conditions may exist as far as 200 miles from that specific dot.”
But Louisiana resident Ryan Unger plans to stay in place despite an evacuation order. He filled up gas tanks Sunday night in case he has to run his generator.
“Starting to get a little sense of anxiety, like, OK, am I ready for it?” he said. “Realizing we ain’t really ready for a storm. So we’re just all thinking about what we gotta do to get in place to get ready for it.”
On Monday morning Isaac was centered about 310 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was forecast to become a hurricane “in a day or so,” the National Hurricane Center said.
The governors of the three imperiled states each declared an emergency, with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordering mandatory evacuations for residents who live along the coast and for those in some low-lying areas inland.
Some 9,000 residents in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, were ordered to evacuate Monday morning. The towns of Jean Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria are affected.
“We’re worried about tidal surge,” Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called on residents in coastal parishes prone to flooding to voluntarily evacuate. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for St. Charles Parish and for parts of Plaquemines Parish.
Even pro football player Courtney Roby of the New Orleans Saints was a little nervous.
“Kinda a scary feeling of uncertainty,” he said via Twitter.
Mississippi officials dispatched 1,500 National Guard troops to the state’s three southern counties to help with emergency operations, as well as 45 state troopers to ease traffic flow.
The state has distributed 10,000 sandbags to residents ahead of the storm.
“In short, we have done everything in our power to be prepared for the storm,” Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said.
In the coastal Mississippi city of Pass Christian, people were moving their boats to higher ground and preparing their homes.
“Lookin’ like we’re gonna be ground zero again,” said Daryl Vaught, as he prepared to place sandbags in front of his doors and garage.
“It seems like Katrina just happened yesterday,” Vaught told CNN affiliate WDSU. “Hopefully we’ll dodge a bullet here this time. I didn’t last time.”
It appeared Monday that the storm’s ferocity would mostly bypass Florida’s west coast and the Republican National Convention in Tampa, where the schedule was pushed back a day by organizers over concerns about the storm.
Isaac’s eye is forecast to pass well west of Tampa.
Still, Isaac’s reach is so large that Florida was getting heavy doses of rain and wind.
In Pompano Beach, Florida, Scott Segal put up hurricane shutters outside his condo as the rain came in horizontally.
“The wind is getting stronger, and the ocean is starting to build, and the waves are getting bigger,” he said. “I am prepared, but not nervous.”
After slamming into Haiti, where at least six people died in storm-related incidents Saturday, Isaac lashed Cuba and the Florida Keys.
Eight oil rigs and 39 production platforms in the gulf were evacuated by late Sunday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. BP said it would evacuate its oil platform workers Monday.
As preparations continued on the northern Gulf Coast, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was assessing damage as Isaac skirted the state’s western coast, bringing strong winds and heavy rain.
“We are experiencing some minor outages in the southern part of the state,” he said at a news conference in Tampa. He said his main concern for Tampa was no longer a direct hit from Isaac but tropical-storm-force winds.
CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Matt Smith, Josh Levs, Dave Alsup, Chelsea J. Carter, Tom Cohen, Martin Savidge, Gary Tuchman and Jim Spellman, and journalist Jean Junior Osman contributed to this report.