More than 80,000 without power from Isaac; Coast residents assess damage

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Utility companies say they are working to restore power to nearly 89,000 customers in south and central Mississippi.

Many utility crews were called in Wednesday night after winds from Isaac got too strong. Crews were back out early yesterday.

Entergy officials say there were 38,250 customers without power and nearly 700,000 outages at the storm’s peak in Entergy’s four-state area of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

The Electrical Power Association of Mississippi has the most customers without power — some 46,607 customers, mostly in coastal and southwestern counties.

Mississippi Power Co., which serves 23 mostly southeastern Mississippi counties, reported about 4,000 of its customers without power as of 9 p.m. Mississippi Power said it was experiencing outages across its service territory and was working to restore power where it can do so safely, especially in flooded areas.

“We are executing on a strategic restoration plan that we mapped out based upon impacted areas,” said Mississippi Power storm director Randall Pinkston.

Residents of the storm-saturated Mississippi Gulf Coast ventured out yesterday to examine damage from Isaac as local governments lifted curfews. Some neighborhoods flooded as the storm system continued dumping heavy rains on its slow trek northward.

Isaac blew ashore as a hurricane Tuesday night, soaking south Louisiana and Mississippi. It was downgraded to a tropical storm Wednesday and to a tropical depression yesterday. High winds damaged buildings yesterday in Ocean Springs and Pascagoula.

Some coastal businesses and roads reopened, but many people who had evacuated still couldn’t make it home because of standing water in low-lying areas and along rivers. Near the western end of Mississippi’s coastline, beachside roads were covered in sand, and several dead nutria — large semiaquatic rodents — littered Beach Boulevard in Hancock County.

A tow truck driver, Gregory Alan Parker, 62, of Picayune, was killed early yesterday when Isaac’s high winds and heavy rains knocked a tree onto his vehicle in his hometown, one county up from the coast and just across the state line from Louisiana.

Near the Alabama line, Jackson County Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Monica Cooper said authorities evacuated people yesterday morning as water rose in the Kreole community in eastern Moss Point. She said some were also being rescued in areas of Pascagoula south of U.S. 90 and there were reports of rising waters in Escatawpa. Cooper said residents told authorities that some houses flooded, although it was not immediately clear how many.

Ray Hayes’ front yard in the Kreole area had about a foot of water, and he said his family considered leaving.

“It got a little worse in Hurricane Georges,” Hayes said, referring to a 1998 storm. “This is not quite as bad.”

Many people left the Kreole area when rumors circulated that flood gates would be opened at the Big Creek Lake on the western side of Mobile, Ala.

Mobile Water and Sewer System, which operates the dam on the drinking water reservoir, partially opened the flood gates, said Cooper. Local authorities were “not expecting any great impact from that opening,” she said.

The Big Creek Lake drains in to the Escatawpa River, which runs along the northern edge of Kreole. Officials said both the Escatawpa and Pascagoula rivers remained swollen.

Pascagoula Police Department spokesman Doug Adams said a large portion of the city flooded and water blocked U.S. 90 at Market Street, in the heart of downtown. “Roads that don’t usually have water on them are covered and water is deeper in areas that are prone to flooding,” he said.

Jackson County real estate broker Mark Cumbest said rising water threatened homes in places that normally stay dry in the northern part of the county, including his parents’ house in the Cumbest Bluff community north of Escatawpa, on the east side of the Pascagoula River.

“I’ve never seen this before,” Cumbest said.

Hancock County chief deputy Don Bass said Isaac’s storm surge left two- to three-feet of sand on the road in spots on Beach Boulevard, which runs along the shore in Bay St. Louis and Waveland. He said a primary concern is flooding along rivers and creeks, which continue to rise from rain further north.

Bands of intermittent rain still pelted the soggy coast and there was gusting wind, but conditions had improved since the height of the storm Wednesday

Forecasters also say as many as 11 inches of rain could fall by next Monday in parts of Mississippi.

Many counties in central and south Mississippi were under a tornado watch until 4 p.m. yesterday. The National Weather Service issued flash-flood watches.

Many roads remained impassable in some rural and low-lying areas. The Mississippi Department of Transportation reported some road closings because of downed trees and power lines. Federal authorities closed the Natchez Trace Parkway between Natchez and Kosciusko because of fallen trees.

President Barack Obama declared federal emergencies in Louisiana and Mississippi. The declarations free up federal aid for affected areas.

A steady flow of cars headed south yesterday on Highway 603, which had been closed during the storm. It is the main thoroughfare from Interstate 10 to Waveland and Bay St. Louis

In north Waveland, Jeff Delle was airing his truck tire on 603 as his brother, Stanley, waded through the parking lot of a flooded gas station to get to his van.

Jeff Delle said the water began rising in his neighborhood in the Shoreline Park community on Wednesday and nearly caught fire to his house, which is on stilts, when the water reached the electrical meter box. He took his family to a house they are building further north in Kiln.

“I’m just waiting for the water to go down so I can go in and see what I need to clean up,” he said.

Stanley Delle, who lives near his brother, said he waited for the water to go down some then waded through chest deep water yesterday morning to get to the highway. He said Isaac has been a long ordeal and “I’m glad it’s trying to go away.”

Pearl River County Emergency Management director Danny Manley said Interstate 59 was covered by six inches of water early yesterday at its crossing over the Wolf River. Creeks in the county aren’t forecast to crest until this morning, meaning flooding was likely to worsen. County officials rescued four people from the waters overnight, Manley said. He said high winds damaged some structures in the county, including ripping a roof off a mobile home in the Pine Grove community.

Six of the 12 casinos on the Mississippi Gulf Coast started reopening yesterday evening, with Hurricane Isaac having done little physical damage to the engine of the area’s tourism industry.

Casinos and other business owners say they hope business might bounce back over the Labor Day weekend, giving them some revenue. Workers scurried to clean up at casinos and downtown Biloxi restaurants yesterday, with storm surge having receded from U.S. 90.

The two casinos in Hancock County closed Monday, and the 10 in Harrison County were ordered to close Tuesday as Isaac was still in the Gulf of Mexico. Mississippi law requires the casinos to be over or near the water.

Island View Casino Resort in Gulfport and five casinos in Biloxi — Beau Rivage, Hard Rock, Isle of Capri, IP and Treasure Bay — opened yesterday evening.

Five others plan to open Friday, while the Silver Slipper in Waveland plans to open tomorrow.

Robbie Daniel, 55, an industrial engineer, and his wife, Kathi, a retired teacher, live in a house on the Tchoutacabouffa River in Biloxi, and haven’t left home since Tuesday. Their house is on stilts and was surrounded by chest-deep water.

Kathi Daniel saw online yesterday that casinos could be opening so they hopped in a kayak, paddled to their car on higher ground and drove to Island View in Gulfport.

“Tired of sitting there watching rain,” she said, when asked why she decided to venture out.

Her husband nodded.

“When you’re surrounded by water day after day it gets a little hectic,” he said.

Yesterday was back-to-work day in Harrison County — the Mississippi coast’s most populous. Traffic flowed and restaurants and stores reopened, even though rain still squalled at times, many traffic signals weren’t working and rivers continued to swell.

The other two coast counties could be slower to rebound. Jackson County was experiencing flooding driven by heavy rain, and storm surge was still receding yesterday in Hancock County.

Spokeswoman Jill Alexander said the Isle of Capri casino, which is furthest out on the point where Biloxi Bay flows into the Gulf of Mexico, hadn’t been damaged. That’s in part because the casino’s building is 34 feet above the ground. Alexander said there was 18 feet of storm surge under the casino at one point.

“We are in cleanup mode and are just waiting for permission from the Mississippi Gaming Commission to reopen,” she said.

The same cleanup was going on at Biloxi’s other gambling halls.

Workers at the Hard Rock swept up waterborne debris that had settled on the lawn. At the Grand Casino, workers were pumping water out of a service level into a storm drain. At Boomtown, on Biloxi’s back bay, a worker blew leaves out of the parking lot.

Mary Spain, a spokeswoman for the Beau Rivage, said a metal floodwall was assembled to prevent damage to the lowest level of the coast’s largest casino.

There’s some urgency to get the doors open. Coast casinos win more than $20 million from gamblers in even a slow week.

“Any time you have a holiday in a tourism area, it’s a big weekend,” Spain said. She said the casino would make sure people knew it was open to overcome the pictures of Isaac that have blanketed the news.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation still has to sign off on U.S. 90. Spokesman Michael Flood said crews were inspecting the highway yesterday, clearing sand and other debris and unclogging drains. He also said some traffic signals on the busy thoroughfare were not working.

James McGowan was part of a two-man Merchants Company crew that braved the storm yesterday morning to leave the food distributor’s Hattiesburg base and make 10 stops at coast restaurants.

They were helping chef Nick Newman restock the Fillin’ Station bar and restaurant in downtown Biloxi, blocks away from the coast’s largest casinos.

Newman said he was pleasantly surprised to get the delivery, which would allow him to reopen yesterday. As he wrote the check for the delivery, McGowan’s beer distributor also appeared.

Newman said he believed business could be good over Labor Day. “It depends on how many tourists come down here.”

Workers were taking down the numbered boards on the windows at the nearby Half Shell Oyster House.

“If I had enough people who could come in, I could open right now,” manager John Graham said.

He said the restaurant never lost power and would only have to throw out $500 worth of food that had already been prepared or went bad. He said that the restaurant also lost about $20,000 worth of sales from when business began tailing off Monday through lunch yesterday. He wasn’t sure whether any of that revenue loss would be covered by insurance.

Graham was optimistic about making up some of the loss over the weekend though.

He said the Sunday before Labor Day is often a strong day, because no one has to work the next day.

“I expect everything to be as strong as normal,” he said. “I’ve had 20 phone calls today asking when we open. There’re a lot of power crews in town that are tired of sandwiches.”

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