Katrina plows into Louisiana coast, raising fears of catastrophe

Associated Press Writer
      NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Hurricane Katrina plowed into this
below-sea-level city Monday with howling, 145-mph winds and
blinding rain that flooded some homes to the ceilings and peeled
away part of the roof of the Superdome, where thousands of people
had taken shelter.
      Katrina weakened overnight to a Category 4 storm and turned
slightly eastward before hitting land at 6:10 a.m. CDT near the
bayou town of Buras, apparently sparing this vulnerable city from
the storm's full fury.
      But National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield warned that
New Orleans would be pounded throughout the day and that Katrina's
potential 15-foot storm surge, down from a feared 28 feet, was
still substantial enough to cause extensive flooding.
      "I'm not doing too good right now," Chris Robinson said via
cellphone from his home east of the city's downtown. "The water's
rising pretty fast. I got a hammer and an ax and a crowbar, but I'm
holding off on breaking through the roof until the last minute.
Tell someone to come get me please. I want to live."
      Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, the storm flung boats onto land
in Mississippi, lashed street lamps and flooded roads in Alabama,
and swamped highway bridges in the Florida Panhandle. At least half
a million people were without power from Louisiana to Florida's
Panhandle, including 370,000 in southeastern Louisiana and 116,400
in Alabama, mostly in the Mobile area.
      At New Orleans' Superdome, home to 9,000 storm refugees, wind
peeled pieces of metal from the roof, leaving two holes that let
water drip in. People inside were moved out of the way. Others
stayed and watched as sheets of metal flapped and rumbled loudly 19
stories above the floor.
      Building manager Doug Thornton said the larger hole was 15 to 20
feet long and four to five feet wide. Outside, one of the 10-foot,
concrete clock pylons set up around the Superdome blew over.
      "The Superdome is not in any dangerous situation," Gov.
Kathleen Blanco said.
      In suburban Jefferson Parish, Sheriff Harry Lee said residents
of a building on the west bank of the Mississippi River called 911
to say the building had collapsed and people might be trapped. He
said deputies were not immediately able to check out the building
because their vehicles were unable to reach the scene.
      Scores of windows were blown out at some of New Orleans' hotels.
At the Windsor Court Hotel, guests were told to go into the
interior hallways with blankets and pillows and to keep the doors
closed to the rooms to avoid flying glass.
      At 11 a.m. EDT, Katrina was centered 35 miles northeast of New
Orleans, moving to the north at 16 mph. The storm's winds dropped
to 125 mph - a Category 3 storm - as it pushed inland, threatening
the Gulf Coast and the Tennessee Valley with as much as 15 inches
of rain over the next couple of days and up to 8 inches in the
drought-stricken Ohio Valley and eastern Great Lakes.
      Katrina was a terrifying, 175-mph Category 5 behemoth - the most
powerful category on the scale - before weakening.
      Mayfield said at midmorning the worst flooding from storm surge
was on the Mississippi coast, east of the eye, with the highest
storm surge recorded so far at 22 feet in Bay St. Louis.
      Along U.S. 90 in Mississippi, the major coastal route that is
home to the state's casinos, sailboats were washed onto the
four-lane highway.
      "This is a devastating hit - we've got boats that have gone
into buildings," Gulfport Fire Chief Pat Sullivan said as he
maneuvered around downed trees in the city. "What you're looking
at is Camille II."
      Forecasters predicted that the worst-hit areas in Mississippi
would be about a 15-mile stretch of coast including Waveland, Bay
St. Louis, and Pass Christian. The last time that area was hit by
such a severe storm was in 1969 when the Category Five Hurricane
Camille devastated the region, killing 256 people in Mississippi
and Louisiana.
      In Gulf Shores, Ala., which nearly a year ago was Ground Zero
for Hurricane Ivan's destruction, waves crashed over the seawalls
and street lights danced in the howling winds.
      In New Orleans' French Quarter, water pooled in the streets from
the driving rain, but the city appeared to have escaped the
catastrophic flooding that forecasters had predicted.
      On historic Jackson Square, two massive oak trees outside the
278-year-old St. Louis Cathedral came out by the roots, ripping out
a 30-foot section of ornamental iron fence and straddling a marble
statue of Jesus Christ, snapping off only the thumb and forefinger
of his outstretched hand.
      At the hotel Le Richelieu, the winds blew open sets of balcony
french doors shortly after dawn. Seventy-three-year-old Josephine
Elow of New Orleans pressed her weight against the broken doors as
a hotel employee tried to secure them.
      "It's not life-threatening," Mrs. Elow said as rain water
dripped from her face. "God's got our back."
      Elow's daughter, Darcel Elow, was awakened before dawn by a
high-pitched howling that sounded like a trumpeting elephant.
      "I thought it was the horn to tell everybody to leave out the
hotel," she said as she walked the hall in her nightgown.
      For years, forecasters have warned of the nightmare scenario a
big storm could bring to New Orleans, a bowl of a city that is up
to 10 feet below sea level in spots and relies on a network of
levees, canals and pumps to keep dry from the Mississippi River on
one side, Lake Pontchartrain on the other.
      The fear was that flooding could overrun the levees and turn New
Orleans into a toxic lake filled with chemicals and petroleum from
refineries, as well as waste from ruined septic systems.
      In the uptown area of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake
Ponchartrain, floodwaters by 8 a.m. had already intruded on the
first stories of some houses and some roads were impassable.
      The National Weather Service reported that a levee broke on the
Industrial Canal near the St. Bernard-Orleans parish line, and 3 to
8 feet of flooding was possible. The Industrial Canal is a 5.5-mile
waterway that connects the Mississippi River to the Intracoastal
      Crude oil futures spiked to more than $70 a barrel in Singapore
for the first time Monday as Katrina targeted an area crucial to
the country's energy infrastructure, but the price had slipped back
to $68.95 by midday in Europe. The storm already forced the
shutdown of an estimated 1 million barrels of refining capacity.
      Terry Ebbert, New Orleans director of homeland security, said
more than 4,000 National Guardsmen were mobilizing in Memphis and
would help police New Orleans streets.
      Calling it a once-in-a-lifetime storm, New Orleans Mayor Ray
Nagin had ordred a mandatory evacuation for the 480,000 residents
of the vulnerable city, and he estimated about 80 percent heeded
the call.
      The evacuation itself claimed lives. Three New Orleans nursing
home residents died Sunday after being taken by bus to a Baton
Rouge church. Don Moreau, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's
Office, said the cause was probably dehydration.
      Katrina, which cut across Florida last week, had intensified
into a Category 5 over the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico,
reaching top winds of 175 mph before weakening as it neared the
      New Orleans has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane since
Betsy in 1965, when an 8- to 10-foot storm surge submerged parts of
the city in seven feet of water. Betsy, a Category 3 storm, was
blamed for 74 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
      Katrina hit the southern tip of Florida as a much weaker storm
Thursday and was lamed for nine deaths. It left miles of streets
and homes flooded and knocked out power to 1.45 million customers.
It was the sixth hurricane to hit Florida in just over a year.
      Associated Press reporters Mary Foster, Holbrook Mohr, Brett
Martel and Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.
      On the Net:
      National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov
      (Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)
AP-NY-08-29-05 1125EDT