The Gulf Coast is bracing for the possibility that tTropical Storm Isaac will strengthen into a dangerous hurricane by the time it makes landfall there.
It was on course to strike land on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the powerful storm that crippled New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and became a symbol of government ineptitude.
Forecasters predicted Isaac would intensify into a Category 2 hurricane, with winds of about 100 mph, by early Wednesday around the time it's expected to make landfall. The current forecast track has the storm aimed at New Orleans, but hurricane warnings extended across 280 miles from Morgan City, La., to the Florida-Alabama state line. It could become the first hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast since 2008.
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National Hurricane Director Rick Knabb urged residents not to focus their preparations on the storm's current strength because such storms often do not stick to forecasters' predictions.
Gas stations in New Orleans were crowded Monday with people topping off their tanks. Many people said they planned to ride the storm out. And managers of some stores and restaurants said they plan to stay open as long as they can.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called a state of emergency and officials in St. Charles Parish near New Orleans told its 53,000 residents to leave ahead of the storm. Jindal also said he may skip a speaking engagement later this week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa unless the threat to his state subsides.
Elected leaders' vigilance toward tropical storms has heightened in the seven years since Katrina struck. Criticism was leveled at officials reaching all the way to the White House over what was seen as the federal government's slow and bungled response to the storm that killed 1,800.
Isaac's approach on the eve of the Katrina anniversary invited obvious comparisons, but Isaac is nowhere near as powerful as the Katrina was when it struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina at one point reached Category 5 status with winds of over 157 mph. It made landfall as a Category 3 storm and created a huge storm surge.
Isaac was expected to draw significant strength from the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but there remained much uncertainty about its path.
As of 11 p.m. CDT on Monday, Isaac remained a tropical storm with winds of 70 mph (110 kph). It was centered about 190 miles (305 kms) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and was moving northwest at 10 mph (17 kph).
The storm's center was forecast to move over the central Gulf of Mexico late Monday and approach the coast of southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi on Tuesday afternoon or Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said.
The Gulf Coast hasn't been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region. Florida, meanwhile, has been hurricane-free since it was struck four times each in 2004 and 2005.