- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Coastal residents jammed freeways and gas stations yesterday as they rushed to get out of the way of Hurricane Katrina, which is threatening to gain strength and make a direct hit on the New Orleans area.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal,” New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said at a press conference. “Board up your homes. Make sure you have enough medicine. Make sure the car has enough gas. Do all things you normally do for a hurricane, but treat this one differently, because it is pointed towards New Orleans.”

Katrina was a Category 3 storm with 115 mph sustained winds yesterday, but the National Hurricane Center in Miami said it was likely to gain force over the Gulf of Mexico, where the surface water temperature was as high as 90 degrees — high-octane fuel for hurricanes.

Last night, the center upgraded its advisory from a “hurricane watch” to a “hurricane warning” for the north-central Gulf Coast from Morgan City, La., eastward to the Alabama-Florida border. The warning area includes the city of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.

A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected within the next 24 hours.

Earlier, the center said Katrina could become a Category 4 storm with wind of at least 131 mph before landfall early tomorrow.

The storm formed in the Bahamas and ripped across South Florida last week before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. The storm was blamed for seven deaths in Florida.

South Florida utility crews were still working yesterday to restore power to 733,000 customers.

Katrina could be especially devastating if it strikes New Orleans because the city sits below sea level and depends on levees and pumps to keep the water out. A direct hit could submerge the city in several feet of water.

Making matters worse, at least 100,000 people in the city lack the transportation to get out of town. Mr. Nagin said the Superdome might be used as a shelter of last resort for people who have no cars, with city bus pickup points around New Orleans.

“I know they’re saying ‘Get out of town,’ but I don’t have any way to get out,” said Hattie Johns, 74. “If you don’t have no money, you can’t go.”

Owners of gas stations in and around New Orleans were forced to direct traffic as lines to the pumps stretched down surrounding streets. Gas stations were running low on gas by midafternoon yesterday.

“I was in line at the bank for an hour and have been waiting for gas for 30 minutes,” John Sullivan said. “If it’s anything like they say it’s going to be, we don’t want to be anywhere close to the city.”

Louisiana and Mississippi made all lanes northbound on interstate highways. Mississippi declared a state of emergency, and Alabama offered assistance to its neighbors. Some motels as far inland as Jackson, Miss., 150 miles north of New Orleans, already were completely booked.

“At this juncture, all we can do is pray it doesn’t come this way and tear us up,” said Jeannette Ruboyianes, owner of the Day Dream Inn at Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island.

“We know that we’re going to take the brunt of it,” Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said. “It does not bode well for southeastern Louisiana.”

Some tourists heeded the warnings and moved up their departures, and lines of tourists waited for cabs on New Orleans’ famed Bourbon Street.

“The problem is getting a taxi to the airport. There aren’t any,” said Brian Katz, a salesman from New York.

New Orleans’ worst hurricane happened 40 years ago, when Hurricane Betsy blasted the Gulf Coast. Floodwaters approached 20 feet in some areas, fishing villages were flattened, and the storm surge left almost half of New Orleans under water and 60,000 residents homeless. Seventy-four persons died in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

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