August 29, 2005

Katrina slams U.S. Gulf Coast, oil rigs adrift

By Rick Wilking

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Hurricane Katrina ripped into the
U.S. Gulf Coast on Monday, battering the historic jazz city New
Orleans, swamping resort towns and lowlands with a crushing
surge of seawater and stranding people on rooftops.

New Orleans, a bowl-shaped city that sits below sea level
and has long feared catastrophic damage from a massive
hurricane, took a powerful blow from Katrina's 135 mph (216
kph) winds when the storm came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico
and roared along the coast into Mississippi and Alabama.

At least two oil rigs were adrift in the Gulf of Mexico,
where Katrina raged through offshore fields as one of the
strongest hurricanes on record. Fearing the worst from the 175
mph (280 kph) winds, oil companies shut down rigs and closed
refineries along the coast, sending oil futures higher.

Katrina could become the most expensive storm in U.S.
history, costing insurers up to $26 billion, risk analysts

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 some 10,000 people had
taken shelter when authorities ordered New Orleans evacuated.

But a late turn to the east may have spared the city the
worst as its levee system appeared to be holding off the
Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Officials said a
breach occurred in nearby St. Bernard Parish, where Katrina's
eye passed and extensive damage was expected.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said about 115 people were
stranded on rooftops but rescue teams were not being sent until
winds subsided. She said access routes to New Orleans would be
shut down and told the hundreds of thousands of people who
evacuated to stay away.

"I can't say that I have a sense we escaped the worst," she
said. "We have a tough, tough people. We party hard, we work
hard ... we know we can get through this."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he'd had reports that more
than 20 buildings were collapsing in the city.

Katrina knocked out electricity to about 670,000 power
company customers, or about 1.3 million people, in Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, utility companies said. That
figure included more than 300,000 customers of New
Orleans-based Entergy Corp.

By 2 p.m. CDT (1900 GMT) Katrina's winds had decreased to
95 mph (153 kph), a Category 1 storm, and its center was about
20 miles west-southwest of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, after it
hammered the Mississippi coastal tourist havens of Biloxi and

"It came in on Mississippi like a ton of bricks. It's a
terrible storm," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said.

Asked about his worst fear, Barbour said: "That there are a
lot of dead people out there.

A Weather Channel producer in Gulfport, Mississippi,
estimated a 20-foot (6-meter) storm surge hit the area,
sweeping away cars in the parking lot of a retirement home and
said he was standing in about 6 inches of water on the second
floor of the building.

The National Hurricane Center had said the exposed
Mississippi coastline could expect 15- to 20-foot (4.5- to
6-meter) storm surges.

President George W. Bush on Monday approved "major disaster
declarations" for the states of Louisiana and Mississippi.


Artist Matt Rinard, who owns a business in the French
Quarter of New Orleans, 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 dumb ass
walking down Canal Street."

Officials said three people from a New Orleans nursing home
had died during their evacuation to a Baton Rouge church.

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

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

The storm forced oil companies to shut down production from
many of the offshore platforms that provide a quarter of U.S.
oil and gas output.

Shell said two of its oil drilling rigs under contract were
adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. One rig is owned by Nobel, the
other by Transocean Inc.

U.S. oil futures jumped nearly $5 a barrel in opening trade
to touch a peak of $70.80 before settling back.

Katrina could become the costliest storm in U.S. history,
exceeding the $20.9 billion of inflation-adjusted insurance
claims from Hurricane Andrew, which hit Miami in 1992.

Air Worldwide Corp. of Boston estimated a $12 billion to
$26 billion insurance payout for Katrina. Risk Management
Solutions Inc. of Newark, California, estimated damage of $10
billion to $25 billion.