- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than 1.2 million people in metropolitan New Orleans were warned to leave yesterday as Hurricane Ivan churned toward the Gulf Coast, its 140-mph winds threatening to submerge this below-sea-level city in what could be the most disastrous storm to hit in nearly 40 years.

Residents streamed inland in bumper-to-bumper traffic in an agonizingly slow exodus amid dire warnings that Ivan could overwhelm New Orleans with up to 20 feet of filthy, chemical-polluted water. About 750,000 more people along the coast in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama also were told to evacuate.

Forecasters said Ivan, blamed for at least 68 deaths in the Caribbean, could return to 160 mph winds, strengthening again to Category 5, the highest level, by the time it blows ashore as early as tomorrow somewhere along the Gulf Coast.

“Hopefully, the house will still be here when we get back,” said Tara Chandra, a doctor at Tulane University in New Orleans, who packed up his car, moved plants indoors and tried to book a Houston hotel room. Dr. Chandra said he wanted to ride out the storm, but his wife wanted to evacuate: “All the news reports are kind of freaking her out.”

At nearly 200 miles wide, Ivan could cause significant damage no matter where it strikes. Officials ordered or strongly urged an estimated 1.9 million people to flee a 330-mile danger zone stretching across four states, from Morgan City and New Orleans in Louisiana to St. Marks in the Florida Panhandle.

“I beg people on the coast: Do not ride this storm out,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said, urging people in other parts of the state to open their homes to relatives, friends and co-workers.

At 11 p.m. last night, Ivan was centered about 295 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and was moving north-northwest at 12 mph.

New Orleans, the nation’s largest city below sea level, is particularly vulnerable to flooding, and Mayor Ray Nagin was among the first to urge residents to leave while they can. The city’s Louis Armstrong Airport was ordered closed last night.

Up to 10 feet below sea level in spots, New Orleans sits between the nearly half-mile-wide Mississippi River and Rhode Island-size Lake Pontchartrain, relying on a system of levees, canals and huge pumps to keep dry.

The city has not taken a major direct hit since Betsy in 1965, when an 8- to 10-foot storm surge submerged parts of the city in 7 feet of water. Betsy was blamed for 74 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

Forecasters said Ivan could be worse, sending water pouring over the levees, flooding to the rooftops and turning streets into a toxic brew of raw sewage, gas and chemicals from nearby refineries.

Yesterday, traffic on Interstate 10, the major hurricane route out of New Orleans, was at a near standstill, and state police turned the interstate west of the city into a one-way exit route. U.S. Highway 59, the old major route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, also was jammed.

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