JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Gov. Phil Bryant could place Mississippi’s coast under a state of emergency by sundown Sunday, as the state’s officials prepare for a possible hit from what’s now Tropical Storm Isaac.
Weather forecasters expect Isaac to strengthen into a hurricane and for the center to make landfall early Wednesday somewhere along the northern Gulf Coast. That would be seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, killing more than 200 Mississippians and causing billions of dollars in damage.
Until Saturday, officials had mainly been watching, with a projected track that showed that Mississippi would probably be on the west side of the storm. But computer models jogged Isaac’s expected path to the west, putting Mississippi’s 80-mile coast at greater risk.
“It kind of caught everybody off guard a little bit,” said Terry Jackson, deputy director of the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency.
Because the storm is so wide — tropical winds currently extend as far as 200 miles from the center — Mississippi may be affected even if the center hits in Louisiana, Alabama or the Florida Panhandle. Greg Flynn, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said officials were drafting an emergency proclamation that Bryant could sign as early as Sunday.
At 1 p.m. CDT Sunday, with the storm 650 miles southeast of Gulfport, Miss., authorities in Hancock County were already setting out sandbags in six locations. Brian Adam, the county’s emergency management director, said the county was likely to order evacuations, although he wasn’t sure on the timing yet.
Adam said early Sunday afternoon that he hadn’t yet seen a hurricane surge prediction, which weather officials usually provide to emergency managers. Hancock County is especially vulnerable to storm surge because of geography. The National Weather Service said there was a chance of storm tide along almost the entire Mississippi coast, as well as in parts of Louisiana east of the mouth of the Mississippi. That broad V-shaped area can catch the water that a hurricane shoves in, having the effect of magnifying the height of a storm surge.
Adam said evacuation orders may get more credence than they did before 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.
“I think more people will take the warnings more seriously and believe the water can get where it got to during Katrina,” he said.
Flynn urged people with doubts about their safety to evacuate.
“If anybody has a question about whether they should stay or go, they should go,” he said.
Flynn said the state Emergency Management Agency was sending an advance team to the coast Sunday and would deploy the remainder of its 40-person emergency response team Monday. He said the Mississippi National Guard would also deploy liaisons to the three coastal counties’ emergency operations centers.
If Louisiana officials order an evacuation of New Orleans, Mississippi would reverse the southbound lanes of Interstate 55 and Interstate 59, to allow four lanes of northbound traffic. I-59 would be reversed to a point south of Hattiesburg, while I-55 would be reversed to a point near Brookhaven. U.S. 49, the main highway running north from Mississippi’s coast, would not be reversed because it does not have controlled access like an interstate, Flynn said. He expressed confidence that with highway improvements made since Katrina, there’s enough capacity for Mississippians to flee the storm.
Some large coast employers were continuing operations. Huntington Ingalls Industries, which runs the 10,000-employee Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, said morning shift employees should report as usual Monday but urged second-shift and third-shift workers to monitor announcements. Ingalls said its smaller Gulfport facility would be closed except for essential personnel.
Chevron Corp. said it was closely monitoring Isaac’s path but wouldn’t comment on whether it was shutting down its Pascagoula refinery, the largest that the San Ramon, Calif., oil company owns. Chevron told its local employees that work schedules were unchanged Monday, but that it was in preparation mode and could take further steps if forecasts predict wind speeds above 60 mph at the refinery.
The shipyard suffered extensive damage from Katrina. However, the refinery’s private levees fended off a 15-foot storm surge, limiting damage there.
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