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Hurricane Isaac slows, sucking up energy over the Gulf (+video)

Hurricane Isaac is crawling along at 10 m.p.h., and winds hit 75 m.p.h. as Isaac gained strength moving over the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Isaac is forecast to reach New Orleans early Wednesday morning.

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Federal officials said the updated levees around New Orleans are equipped to handle storms stronger than Isaac. The Army Corps of Engineers was given about $14 billion to improve flood defenses, and most of the work has been completed. The levees are designed to withstand storm surges as high as 26 feet (7.9 meters) in some places.

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But anxiety was high, especially in the city's Lower 9th Ward, wiped out by Katrina after floodwalls burst and let the waters rush in.

"I don't really trust the levees," said Robert Washington, who planned to evacuate along with his wife and five children. "I don't want to take that chance. I saw how it looked after Katrina back here."

His neighborhood, just a few blocks from where the floodwall protecting the Lower 9th Ward broke open, remains largely empty.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center warned that Isaac, especially if it strikes at high tide, could cause storm surges of up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) along the coasts of southeast Louisiana and Mississippi and up to 6 feet (1.8 meters) as far away as the Florida Panhandle.

States of emergency were in effect in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. No flights were scheduled Tuesday, the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport said.

The Coast Guard was searching the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida-Alabama state line Tuesday for a man who failed to return home Monday from a water-scooter trip as Isaac was approaching the coast.

The U.S. government said 78 percent of the oil production in the Gulf of Mexico has been halted in preparation for the storm as companies have evacuated 346 offshore oil and gas production platforms. That's 17 percent of daily U.S. oil production.

One question haunting locals was how much oil left over from the massive Gulf oil spill in 2010 might wind up on the beaches because of the storm. Experts believe large tar mats lie submerged just off the coast, but no one knows where they are or how many there might be.

Isaac left 24 dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic but left little damage in the Florida Keys as it blew past.

The new hurricane was already deeply woven into political concerns beyond the Republican convention. The slow response to Katrina, which killed 1,800 and left New Orleans in chaos, led to severe criticism of then-President George W. Bush's Republican administration. This time, both Obama and Romney are cautious about the impressions made.

Obama on Monday asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts with state and local officials along the Gulf Coast. But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, shot back late Monday in a letter to the Obama administration that the declaration fell short of the help he was requesting.

The White House did not respond immediately to requests for comment on Jindal's letter.

RECOMMENDED: 5 ways you can prepare for a hurricane

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Burdeau reported from New Orleans.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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