NEW ORLEANS -- Levees are stronger, flood walls higher and residents and cities better prepared.
But how much safer is the Gulf Coast from a catastrophic storm like Hurricane Katrina, which slammed the region in 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and drowning 80% of New Orleans?
That question is being asked repeatedly across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana as Tropical Storm Isaac gathers strength and continues its slow, plodding northwest march toward the coast.
Forecasters predict the storm will make landfall somewhere between southern Louisiana and eastern Mississippi as early as Tuesday evening - almost seven years to the day of Katrina - as a Category 1 storm, with winds of up to 95 mph. Isaac forced organizers to postpone the Republican National Convention in Tampa for a day, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal canceled his speaking engagement at the event, instead taking to the airwaves to coordinate the state's response.
Katrina became the costliest disaster in U.S. history, causing $135 billion worth of destruction, and drew promises from federal and state officials to never again allow such a fractured response to a national catastrophe.
This time around, the region - and New Orleans in particular - is much better prepared, thanks to residents taking storm warnings more seriously, cities equipped with better evacuation and rescue plans and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' $14 billion facelift to the 350 miles of levees and floodwalls protecting the greater New Orleans area.
"We've had plenty of opportunity to learn from the mistakes we made," said Timolynn Sams, a New Orleans community activist, as she shopped for extra water and other supplies Monday. She was riding out the storm in her home in Gentilly, a neighborhood in the northern part of the city near Lake Pontchartrain. "We're more prepared now as residents and government as we've ever been."
Though Isaac is taking a similar path as Katrina, the storms are very different, meteorologists say. Today's storm is not as intense and has much lower wind speeds, said John Cangialosi, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center. But even a smaller storm like Isaac can bring more than 10 feet of storm surge, creating problems for low-lying areas, he said.
FEMA- one of the many agencies pilloried for its response during Katrina - has overhauled its approach to major storms, even embracing social media to reach residents. The agency has been tweeting tips - something unheard of seven years ago - to those preparing for the storm, encouraging them to update contact lists and check that their emergency kits have rain gear, battery-powered radios, flashlights and extra batteries.
FEMA and state emergency managers say they are more prepared and better coordinated since Katrina. FEMA director Craig Fugate hopes residents will follow their lead, heeding warnings and evacuating to higher ground. The slow-moving storm will push water from the gulf ashore and could dump up to 18 inches of rain on the ground that will become too saturated to absorb it, Fugate said Monday.
"We are concerned that people did not learn the lesson about water," he said. "We need people to go now."
Across the Gulf Coast, people did just that.
Mandatory evacuations prompted residents to flee coastal Louisiana. In Plaquemines Parish, about 10 miles south of New Orleans, work crews on Monday piled rock and gravel on a levee road in anticipation of the main highway in and out of the parish being overrun by storm surge, Parish President Billy Nungesser said.
The Army Corps has raised and strengthened levees around the northern part of the parish since Katrina, he said. But some gaps still need to be fixed. After Hurricane Gustav in 2008, rescue crews ferried residents in boats from areas ringed with water, he said.
"We don't want to see those people trapped in southern Plaquemines again," Nungesser said Monday.
Residents from Grand Isle, about 100 miles south of New Orleans, have become resilient to disasters, having endured first Katrina then the 2010 BP oil spill that struck the barrier island, Councilman Jay LaFont said. A mandatory evacuation for Isaac issued Monday forced away most of the town's 1,500 residents. Residents latched down homes or pulled boats out of town.
The federal government replaced most of the beaches and levees destroyed by Katrina, he said. But a mile of levee on the western end of the island still needs to be repaired, he said. That gap could lead to storm surge swamping the town's marina and a new nearby bridge, said LaFont, noting that the city has pleaded for the Army Corps to finish the job.
"Evidently it will take a real beating before we get anything done," he said.
Sober reactions in Mississippi, Alabama
The force and carnage left in Katrina's wake forced communities up and down the Gulf Coast to rethink everything from levies to architecture to evacuation planning.
In Biloxi, Miss., officials instituted new height requirements on homes in low-lying areas, said Vincent Creel, a city spokesman. New seaside homes have been built bigger, stronger and from 13 to 20 feet off the ground. Though Isaac did not require a mandatory evacuation for the coastal city, residents cleared store shelves of bottled water, flashlights, batteries and other supplies - a sign they're taking the storm seriously, Creel said.
"It doesn't take a Katrina," Creel said. "A minimal storm can do damage. We just hope people continue to be vigilant."
In Bayou La Batre, Ala., language barrier - not the storm surge or high winds - was one of the lasting failures from Katrina. The city's sizable Asian community didn't understand many of the dangers that lingered after the 2005 hurricane, including black mold in homes, which sickened many residents.
Mayor Stan Wright said he never wants language to get in the way again. On Monday, he met with Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese interpreters to get the word out on Isaac.
"That was the biggest lesson," Wright said. "We have to notify everybody of what's going on. We still have some language barriers."
Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, who headed the state when Katrina struck and coordinated its response, said much has improved since that storm. A good portion of the older homes in danger zones have been replaced with ones designed to withstand hurricane conditions. "We're far better off than we were seven years ago," he said Monday.
Barbour's Republican Party had to retool this week's convention in Tampa as the storm began crawling through the Caribbean on its current path. Though the convention site just saw rain, Brandon Payne, executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party, said Gulf Coast delegates are sensitive to the impact of storms and hurricanes. "Having been through Katrina, obviously the memories of that are" fresh, he said.
Payne's home in Gulfport is only a walk from the Gulf of Mexico. He says he was lucky to suffer only roof damage compared with others who lost much more. Even so, he's sure state officials are ready this time. "I'm confident they will do what they need to do," he said.
In the Big Easy
Meanwhile, residents across New Orleans on Monday tracked weather reports and weighed decisions to stay or go.
In the Lower 9th Ward - epicenter of Katrina's destruction and the scene of survivors pleading for their lives from rooftops - residents mostly fled, not waiting to see whether improved levees would work this time, said Linda Jackson, president of the Lower 9th Homeowners Association.
"I think we're OK," Jackson said, referring to bigger levees and floodwalls ringing her neighborhood. "But we're not that OK that we want to stay."
The improved floodwalls around the Lower 9th are a tiny segment of a massive expansion of the city's hurricane protection system: a series of levees, floodwalls and gates designed to protect from a so-called 100-year storm, or a storm that has 1% chance of making landfall in any given year, said Ricky Boyett, a spokesman with the Army Corps' New Orleans district. Katrina was considered a 395-year storm. Isaac is closer to a 100-year storm, he said.
Unlike the protection system in place when Katrina hit, the current system is designed to handle overtopping of floodwalls, Boyett says. Overtopping led to many of the breaches that caused the city to flood during Katrina. The centerpiece of the new protection system is a mammoth surge barrier stretching 1.8 miles across a waterway in eastern New Orleans that cost $1 billion to build, he said.
"The level of risk has been significantly reduced here," says Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has studied Katrina's impact. "The Army Corps did a generation's worth of work in about six years."
The city has also vastly improved its communication system and emergency planning, Campanella says. In the chaotic days following Katrina, police, fire and rescue crews frantically tried to rescue residents using borrowed boats and makeshift command centers.
Today, emergency officials operate from a single building near City Park and communicate on a unified radio system, said Tim McConnell, the fire department's assistant superintendent. His department received funding for 28 boats and a plan between fire, police and emergency medical crews is a lot clearer.
"We have a much better defined chain of command," McConnell said. "I'm feeling much better this time around."