Waves from the Santa Rosa Sound crash over the Navarre Beach causeway in Navarre, Fla., as Isaac approaches. Gusts of 100 mph were expected along the Gulf.
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NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Isaac spun into the southern Louisiana coast late Tuesday, sending floodwaters surging and unleashing fierce winds, as residents hunkered down behind boarded-up windows. New Orleans calmly waited out another storm on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's seventh anniversary, hoping the city's strengthened levees will hold.
Isaac, a massive storm spanning nearly 200 miles from its center, made landfall at about 7:45 p.m. near the mouth of the Mississippi River. But it was zeroing in on New Orleans, turning streets famous for all-hours celebrations into ghost boulevards.
While many residents stayed put, evacuations were ordered in low-lying areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, where officials ordered the closure of the state's 12 shorefront casinos. By late Tuesday, more than 200,000 homes and businesses lost power.
Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, said Isaac's core was expected to pass west of New Orleans with winds close to 80 mph and head for Baton Rouge.
He said gusts could reach about 100 mph at times, especially at higher levels which could damage high-rise buildings in New Orleans.
Federal officials warned again and again that the storm, which killed 29 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, would generate high seas, intense rain, and serious flooding over coastal and inland areas for days.
As Isaac neared the city, there was little fear or panic. With New Orleans' airport closed, tourists retreated to hotels and most denizens of a coastline that has witnessed countless hurricanes decided to ride out the storm.
"Isaac is the son of Abraham," said Margaret Thomas, who was trapped for a week in her home in New Orleans by Katrina's floodwaters, yet chose to stay put this time. "It's a special name that means 'God will protect us.'"
Still, the storm drew scrutiny because of its timing -- just before the anniversary of Katrina and coinciding with the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
"We don't expect a Katrina-like event, but remember there are things about a Category 1 storm that can kill you," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said.
Tens of thousands of people were told to leave low-lying areas, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes. At least one tornado spun off of Isaac in Alabama. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.
Many Gulf Coast residents opted to ride it out in shelters or at home and officials, while sounding the alarm about the dangers of the storm, decided not to call for mass evacuations like those that preceded Katrina, which packed 135 mph winds in 2005.
The hurricane will be the first test of the new $14.5 billion, 133-mile ring of levees, flood walls, gates, and pumps put in place after Katrina by the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that built the defenses that failed the city catastrophically in 2005.
On Tuesday morning, with the blare of a warning buzzer and the rumble of big motors moving tons of steel, two halves of a massive butterfly gate started moving toward each other to close off New Orleans from the anticipated 12-foot storm surge.
But in a city that weathered Hurricane Gustav in 2008, calm prevailed.
"I feel safe," said Pamela Young, who settled in to her home in the Lower 9th Ward -- a neighborhood devastated by Katrina -- with dog Princess and her television. "Everybody's talking 'going, going,' but the thing is, when you go, there's no telling what will happen. The storm isn't going to just hit here."
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that around 4,200 members of the National Guard had been activated and that there were thousands of available beds in shelters and more than 1,000 evacuees in parish, state, or Red Cross-run shelters across the state.
He also said the Obama Administration's disaster declaration fell short of the federal help he had requested. Mr. Jindal said he wanted a promise from the federal government to be reimbursed for storm preparation costs.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said requests would be addressed after the storm.
Mr. Obama promised that Americans will help each other recover, "no matter what this storm brings."
Gulf residents and visitors tried to make the best of the situation on the ground.
In New Orleans' French Quarter, Hyatt hotel employee Nazareth Joseph braced for a busy week and fat overtime paychecks.
"We made it through Katrina; we can definitely make it through this," he said.
And tourist Maureen McDonald of Long Beach, Ind., strolled the French Quarter on her 80th birthday wearing a poncho and accompanied by family.
"The storm hasn't slowed us down. We're having the best time."