- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. — Hurricane Katrina, no lady but not as angry as expected, pounded the New Orleans area yesterday and then tore across the nearby Mississippi Gulf Coast with a 22-foot storm surge, killing more than 50 persons.

Death tolls began to mount last night as emergency officials in Louisiana and Mississippi began to reach some of the areas hit hardest by Katrina’s raging winds, sporadic tornadoes and roof-high floodwaters.

The enormous hurricane, which weakened from a Category 5 to Category 4 storm just before landfall at 6:10 a.m. near Grand Isle, La., jogged slightly east of New Orleans and left tens of thousands of homes flooded and buildings destroyed across a 150-mile front extending into Alabama.

Jim Pollard, spokesman for the Harrison County, Miss., emergency operations center, said Katrina had killed 50 persons in his county, including 30 deaths at an apartment complex in Biloxi.

Three other persons were killed by falling trees in Mississippi and two died in a traffic accident in Alabama, authorities said.

At least 20 buildings in New Orleans collapsed, hundreds of people were stranded on rooftops, and several “bodies are floating in the water,” New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said yesterday afternoon as officials began to get early damage reports.

“We know some people got trapped, and we pray they are OK,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said.

“We pray that the loss of life is very limited, but we fear that is not the case,” added Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.

By last night, a rapidly weakening Katrina had been downgraded to a tropical storm as it passed through eastern Mississippi, moving north at 21 mph. Winds were still a dangerous 65 mph.

As Katrina moves north, the system is forecast to dump 4 to 8 inches of rain in the Tennessee Valley and in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions, with higher amounts in scattered areas. Tornadoes also are a threat.

The expected 28-foot-high waves did not materialize in New Orleans, but the surge reached 15 feet there, breaking at least one of the levees built to protect the below-sea-level city, although the famed French Quarter seemed to have escaped the worst.

Parts of the system of pumps that remove water from the city and nearby areas, which sit in a bowl between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, failed. Also, a 50-foot water main broke in New Orleans, making it unsafe to drink the city’s water without boiling it.

“I can’t say that I feel that sense that we’ve escaped the worst,” Mrs. Blanco said. “I think we don’t know what the worst is right now.”

Early reports said that an estimated 40,000 homes were flooded in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, and that on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, entire neighborhoods of one-story homes were flooded up to the rooflines.

“I’m not doing too good right now,” Chris Robinson told the Associated Press via cellular phone 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.”

Mrs. Blanco told CNN last night: “We’ve got boats moving through neighborhoods. We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of houses inundated with water in eastern New Orleans.”

“We’ve pulled literally hundreds of people out of the waters,” she said.

Mr. Nagin, who Sunday ordered the city’s first mandatory evacuation, yesterday warned the hundreds of thousands who fled the storm that it would be about 48 hours before residents would be allowed back to their homes to assess damage.

Officials estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans’ 470,000 residents fled, driving as far west as Houston and east to Alabama and Florida.

Terry Ebbert, chief of homeland security for New Orleans, said some people who ignored evacuation orders “spent their last night on Earth.”

“That’s a hard way to learn a lesson,” he said.

The federal government began rushing baby formula, communications equipment, generators, water and ice into the region, along with doctors, nurses, first-aid supplies and Pentagon search-and-rescue officials.

“For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we are prepared to help — don’t be. We are,” President Bush said in California.

In Mississippi, Katrina recorded a storm surge of more than 20 feet, washing sailboats onto U.S. Highway 90, the four-lane coastal road.

The Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino, one of the premier gambling spots in Biloxi a few hundred yards from the beach, was flooded on the first floor, and the governor said other casinos were flooded as well.

“This is a devastating hit — we’ve got boats that have gone into buildings,” said Fire Chief Pat Sullivan of Gulfport, 67 miles east of New Orleans. “What you’re looking at is Camille II.”

Hurricane Camille, a bitter memory in Mississippi, made landfall as a Category 5 storm in 1969, killing 256 persons in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In Alabama, exploding transformers lit up the early-morning sky, and muddy, 6-foot waves engulfed stately, million-dollar homes along Mobile Bay’s normally tranquil waterfront.

More than a million people were without power from Louisiana to Florida’s Panhandle, including 370,000 in southeastern Louisiana, more than 200,000 in Mississippi, at least 400,000 in Alabama, and almost 82,000 in Florida — figures all likely to rise as authorities get better information. Officials said it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone.

At New Orleans’ Superdome, home to 9,000 storm refugees, the wind ripped 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. Outside, one of the 10-foot, concrete clock pylons set up around the Superdome blew over.

In New Orleans’ historic French Quarter of Napoleonic-era buildings with wrought-iron balconies, water pooled in the streets from the driving rain, but the area appeared to have escaped the catastrophic flooding that forecasters had predicted.

On the city’s Jackson Square, two large oak trees on the plaza of the 278-year-old St. Louis Cathedral were lifted out by the roots, ripping out a 30-foot section of ornamental iron fence and straddling a marble statue of Jesus, snapping off only the thumb and forefinger of the outstretched hand.

In Alabama’s Mobile Bay, Fred Wright’s whole yard was flooded and muddy waves were hitting the back of his home.

Mr. Wright, shirtless and wearing shorts, spoke of the expensive real estate on the waterfront: “There are lots of homes through here worth a million dollars. At least, they were yesterday.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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