NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane Isaac raked the Louisiana coast and headed for a shuttered New Orleans late Tuesday, with brutal timing that made up for much of what it lacked in punch.
Just hours shy of the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Isaac's approach left deserted streets from New Orleans' famous French Quarter to Tampa 480 miles away, where Republican conventioneers pressed on with only a passing mention of the storm's arrival.
A Category 1 hurricane with winds at 80 mph, Isaac came ashore at 6:45 p.m. CDT near the mouth of the Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana, drenching a sparsely populated neck of land that stretches into the Gulf of Mexico. But the worst was still to come as the slow-moving storm chugged along on a track that would take it just west of New Orleans, roughly 70 miles to the north.
At 3 a.m. EDT Wednesday, the hurricane that once was crawling at a forward speed of 7 mph was nearly stationary near the southeast Louisiana coast, according to an advisory from the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isaac was forecast to over the next day or two to drift over that coast before heading inland, the center added.
While much less powerful than Katrina in 2005, Isaac unleashed fierce winds and soaking rains that knocked out power to more than 200,000 homes and businesses.
The storm drew intense scrutiny because of its timing -- just before the anniversary of the hurricane that devastated that city, while the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention went on in Tampa, Fla., already delayed and tempered by the storm.
While many residents stayed put, evacuations were ordered in low-lying areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, where officials closed 12 shorefront casinos.
One of the main concerns along the shoreline was storm surge, which occurs when hurricane winds raise sea levels off the coast, causing flooding on land.
A storm surge of 11 feet was reported at Shell Beach, Louisiana, late Tuesday while a surge of 6.9 feet was reported in Waveland, Mississippi, the Hurricane Center said.
Ed Rappaport, the center's deputy director, said Isaac's core would pass west of New Orleans with winds close to 80 mph and head for Baton Rouge.
"On this course, the hurricane will gradually weaken," Rappaport said. He said gusts could reach about 100 mph at times, especially at higher levels, which could damage high-rise buildings in New Orleans.
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' Broadmoor neighborhood by Katrina's floodwaters, yet chose to stay put this time. "It's a special name. That means God will protect us."
Officials, chastened by memories and experience, advised caution.
"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, urging people to use common sense and to stay off any streets that may flood.
Tourists and residents alike appeared to have heeded that warning. Shortly after midnight in and around the French Quarter, streets normally packed with partiers were deserted, washed by sheets of rain and blown by winds that made hanging building signs swing wildly.
"Nobody is actually out here partying from what I've seen," said Jared Farrell, a parking valet for several hotels.
Tracy Smith, 26, a New Orleans resident who decided that she and her family would be safer at La Quinta hotel near the quarter than at home, ducked out shortly after midnight to gauge the storm's severity. Farrell yelled over to her to watch out for a restaurant sign that had become partially detached from a building and threatened to fly off.
Smith, a former deputy sheriff, was trapped for several days with about 100 inmates in a New Orleans jail during Hurricane Katrina, up to her waist in floodwaters. She is still haunted by the experience.
"That's why I was panicked for this storm," she said.
Tens of thousands of people were told to leave low-lying areas, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes, but officials decided not to call for mass evacuations like those that preceded Katrina, which packed 135 mph winds in 2005.
Isaac also promised to test a New Orleans levee system bolstered after the catastrophic failures during Hurricane Katrina. But in a city that has already 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."
Young, who lives in a new, two-story home built to replace the one destroyed