- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Floodwaters up to 6 feet deep engulfed streets and forced residents onto rooftops after savage winds pulverized New Orleans’ business district, leaving this party town with a painful hurricane hangover.

In the city known as the birthplace of jazz, the storm shattered high-rise windows, littered the streets of the historic French Quarter with debris and tore through the roof of the Superdome football stadium, where about 9,000 people had taken shelter.

In St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, floodwaters were waist-high. A homeless man waded through the water and shouted out to the people watching from the interstate highway overpass.

“Hey mister, toss me something,” he said, invoking the classic Mardi Gras request for beads.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, last night said that about 1,200 people were stranded “but safe” on rooftops — just in St. Bernard Parish.

“As of tonight, several hundred people have been rescued from their homes, from their attics, from their rooftops,” she said. “We believe there are hundreds more out there.”

Bryan Vernon spent three hours on his roof, screaming over howling winds for someone to save him and his fiancee.

“I’ve never encountered anything like it in my life. It just kept rising and rising and rising,” he said.

Across a street that had turned into a river bobbing with garbage cans, trash and old tires, a woman leaned from the second-story window of a brick home and pleaded to be rescued.

“There are three kids in here,” the woman said. “Can you help us?”

Private citizens were already conducting rescue efforts. In New Orleans, Mark Morice, 35, steered his boat through four feet of water, downed power lines and broken tree limbs.

“We are going out, there are people out there on top of homes,” he said.

Mr. Morice’s friend, Walker Lasiter, 28, sat on his deck, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts.

“Did you all see those nutrias swimming by?” he asked, referring to massive beaverlike rodents that live in the New Orleans canals and sewer systems.

On Interstate 10, one motorist rounded a corner and unwittingly steered directly into a wall of water. A member of a TV film crew ran into chest-deep, fast-moving water to pull him out of a window.

The city’s historic French Quarter, which normally vibrates nightly with revelry and music, saw houses severely damaged and cars smashed by tumbling masonry. On the famed Burgundy Street, a two-story brick outbuilding that once had been a slave quarters collapsed.

After the storm passed, police circled the quarter with bullhorns shouting, “The French Quarter is closed. This is state of emergency. Please, please get off the streets or you will be detained.”

But the old city, built on the highest ground around, weathered the blow from the Category 4 storm in grand style. Gail Henke could think of no better way to celebrate than to belly up to a bar on Bourbon Street with a vodka and cranberry juice. Call it a libation to the storm gods and the city’s football team.

“You know what? There’s a reason why we’re called the Saints,” the 53-year-old tour booker told an Associated Press reporter as she communed with 20 or so other survivors. “Because no matter what religion you are, whether you’re a Catholic, whether you’re voodoo, whether you’re Baptist or so on, so on, and so on — we all pray. We all pray.

“I’m not a religious fanatic. But God has saved us.”

Katrina’s howling gales shattered the glass facade of the luxury 27-story Hyatt Regency hotel, leaving soaked and torn curtains blowing crazily out of smashed windows, after the building’s triangular construction seemed to have created a wind-tunnel effect.

Other city center skyscrapers lost windows, and shattered glass flew through the air like shrapnel in streets littered with debris, including entire air-conditioning units torn from apartment or office buildings.

The Superdome had part of its outer roof peeled off, its air conditioning fail, few of its lights work and its water pressure diminish — making the bathrooms filthy. For the refugees inside, many of them poor and frail, the football stadium was welcome, but uncomfortable.

“We’ve got sick babies, sick old people and everything in between,” said Dr. Kevin Stephens, who was in charge of the medical shelter in the Superdome. “We’ve seen strokes, chest pain, diabetes patients passing out, seizures, people without medicine, people with the wrong medicine. It’s been busy.”

Morris Bivens, 53, a painter, came to the stadium with his wife, daughter and five granddaughters ranging in age from 1 to 9.

“I had to come,” he said. “Not for me. I ride these out all the time. But I knew I couldn’t save those children in this one if something happened.”