August 30, 2005

Katrina slams U.S. Gulf Coast, dozens feared dead

By Matt Daily

GULFPORT, Mississippi (Reuters) - Hurricane Katrina ripped
into the U.S. Gulf Coast on Monday, pummeling the historic jazz
city of New Orleans with 100 mph (160 kph) winds and swamping
Mississippi resort towns and lowlands where local media
reported around 40 dead.

Five people were confirmed dead and more fatalities were
expected as searchers combed devastated areas. The Sun Herald
on the Mississippi coast reported around 40 deaths in Biloxi.

New Orleans, a city that sits below sea level and has long
feared catastrophic damage from a massive hurricane, took a
powerful blow from Katrina. But it was spared the worst when
the storm turned at the last moment, sending its powerful wall
of water toward Mississippi.

"The state has suffered a grievous blow on the coast,"
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said.

An oil drilling rig broke free of its mooring in Mobile
Bay, Alabama, and slammed into a bridge. At least two rigs were
adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, where Katrina raged through key
offshore oil and gas fields as one of the strongest hurricanes
on record.

Katrina, which hit the coast as a Category 4 storm on the
five-stage Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, could become the
most expensive storm in U.S. history, costing insurers up to
$26 billion, risk analysts said.

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

But its sustained winds dropped to 135 mph (217 kph) as it
hit land around daybreak and a late turn to the east may have
spared the city even worse damage, as its levee system appeared
to hold off the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.


Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said rescuers have plucked
hundreds of people off rooftops and from the water. Hundreds
more remained stranded as night fell, and thousands of homes in
the took in water.

She urged residents to stay wherever they had sought
shelter because roads were flooded and blocked with fallen
trees, power lines were down and phone service was out.

"It's too dangerous to come home," Blanco said.

Officials said up to 20 buildings in New Orleans had
collapsed or were in danger of doing so.

"We have a tough, tough people," said Blanco. "We party
hard, we work hard ... we know we can get through this."

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.

By 10 p.m. CDT (0300 GMT) Katrina had deteriorated into a
tropical storm centered over northeast Mississippi near the
Alabama state line, steaming north-northeast. With heavy rains
and 60 mph (97 kph) winds, it was just below hurricane

Katrina's last-minute turn away from New Orleans heightened
the misery for the Mississippi coastal tourist havens of Biloxi
and Gulfport, where a 20-foot (6-meter) storm surge pushed
seawater hundreds of yards (metres) inland.

In Mississippi, the storm swept boats onto coastal highways
and swamped waterfront gambling halls.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission shut down 17 casinos and
the industry faced millions in lost revenue each day.

Damage on the Mississippi waterfront was catastrophic, with
several Biloxi landmarks reported destroyed. At nightfall,
Gulfport was a twisted mess, littered with sheet metal, downed
trees and obliterated structures.

"It came in on Mississippi like a ton of bricks. It's a
terrible storm," said Barbour. Buildings that survived 1969's
Hurricane Camille -- and its 190 mph (300 kph) winds --
succumbed to Katrina, he said.

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

Alabama officials said two people were killed in a wreck on
a waterlogged roadway. Three bodies have been recovered in
Mississippi, officials there said.

President George W. Bush approved disaster declarations for
Louisiana and Mississippi to help them obtain government aid.


On the outskirts of New Orleans, waves of water surged
through parking lots and the streets of subdivisions, the wind
kicking up whitecaps. Katrina plucked trees from the ground,
ripped roofs off houses and folded traffic signs in half.

Residents flooded local radio stations with complaints
about looting and officials warned those caught stealing would
be dealt with harshly.

Katrina was making its second 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. Katrina also closed 9 percent of the
nation's crude refining capacity that was in its path.

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

U.S. oil prices jumped nearly $5 a barrel in opening trade
to peak over $70 before settling back to around $67.

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.