August 29, 2005

New Orleans rocked by Hurricane Katrina

By Rick Wilking

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Hurricane Katrina pounded Louisiana
on Monday and threatened to swamp low-lying New Orleans as it
roared on a coastal path that will take it into neighboring
Mississippi and Alabama.

The historic city was rocked by Katrina and its 135 mph
(216 kph) winds after the storm came ashore from the Gulf of
Mexico and roared along the coast.

The roaring winds sent debris flying through the streets,
blew windows out of high-rise hotels and tore through the roof
of the Superdome where 26,000 people had taken refuge from the
dangerous storm.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said in a news conference
the damage had caused leaks and evacuees had been moved to dry
areas in the stadium, but there was no immediate danger.

As 9 a.m. CDT, Katrina's center was 30 miles (48
km)south-southeast of New Orleans and the western wall of the
eye was directly over the city, the National Hurricane Center
in Miami said. At 10 a.m. CDT it was downgraded to a Category 3
with maximum sustained winds of near 125 mph (201 kph).

Heavy rains poured down in sheets and the biggest fear was
that the levees protecting the city from the Mississippi River
and Lake Pontchartrain would be topped by a massive storm

"Please Pray for New Orleans" read a giant hand-painted
sign, appearing to sum up the fears that had seized the city
known as The Big Easy for its relaxed life and party

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said on NBC's "Today Show"
there was already "significant flooding" in the city, most of
which lies below sea level.

"I've gotten reports this morning that there's already
water coming over some of the levee systems," he said.

Weather experts have predicted that thousands of homes
could be damaged or destroyed and a million people left
homeless if the storm surge is too great for the levees to hold

Officials estimated that a million people had left the area
ahead of the storm, which was once a fearsome Category 5 with
winds of 175 mph (282 kph), but many chose to ride it out. It
hit land as a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.


Artist Matt Rinard, who owns a business in the French
Quarter, holed up on the fifth floor of a Canal Street hotel
and watched the storm roll in.

He said pieces of sheet metal and plywood, billboards and
pieces of palm trees flew down Canal, which borders the
Quarter, as huge gusts of wind blew through the city.

"It's blustery. You can see the speed of it now, it's
unbelievable," he said. "The power went out about an hour and a
half ago and so now I'm just watching the occasional dumbass
walking down Canal Street."

News reports said windows were being blown out of the big
hotels near the French Quarter, forcing those inside to seek
shelter in the hallways.

Utility company Entergy Corp. spokesman Morgan Stewart said
317,000 customers had lost power in the storm and that the
number was expected to grow.

"We're preparing for catastrophic damage, particularly to
the New Orleans area," Nagin said. "We expect it could take
weeks to rebuild."

In Mobile, Alabama, 144 miles to the east of New Orleans,
the storm slammed into transformers, knocking out power for
about 200,000 people, and spawned a tornado near Brewton in
Escambia County. Coastal flood warnings were issued.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, 73 miles west of Mobile, the
storm's waves backed up the coastal resort's canal, flooding
roads and endangering a nearby interstate highway.

The two states lie in the projected path of Katrina, which
was expected to veer east from New Orleans.

In Baton Rouge, officials said three people from a New
Orleans nursing home had died during their evacuation to a
Baton Rouge church. They said they were among nearly two dozen
people from the home who were on a bus stuck in traffic for
hours during the 80 mile trip.

New Orleans has not been hit directly by a hurricane since
1965 when Hurricane Betsy blew in, flooding the city. The storm
killed about 75 people overall.

Katrina was making its second U.S. landfall after striking
southern Florida last week, where it caused widespread flooding
and seven deaths.

As the storm plowed through the gulf, oil companies shut
down production from many of the offshore platforms that
provide a quarter of U.S. oil and gas production.

At least 42 percent of daily Gulf oil production, 20
percent of daily Gulf natural gas output and 8.5 percent of
national refining capacity was shut on Sunday, producers and
refiners said.

U.S. oil futures jumped nearly $5 a barrel in opening trade
to touch a peak of $70.80. The rise in oil prices fed through
to other financial markets, hurting stocks and the dollar on
fears that economic growth might be curtailed but boosting safe
havens such as government bonds and gold.