New Orleans flees Katrina
August 28, 2005
NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Katrina, one of the most powerful storms ever to threaten the United States, bore down on the Gulf Coast on Sunday, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the approach of its 160-mph winds and prompting a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, a city perilously below sea level.”We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared,” said Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans, who issued the order to evacuate. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”The hurricane’s eye was expected to make landfall around daybreak today in southeastern Louisiana, possibly squarely in New Orleans.The city has avoided a direct hit from a powerful storm since Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In addition to the dangerous winds, Nagin said, Hurricane Katrina could bring 15 inches of rain and a storm surge of 28 feet or higher that would “most likely topple” the network of levees and canals that normally protect the bowl-shaped city from flooding.That possibility was enough for many of the city’s 485,000 residents to heed the mayor’s call to leave, paralyzing traffic along major highways from just after daybreak and into the evening.”I probably won’t have a house when I go back,” Tanya Courtney, 25, who lives in the city’s French Quarter, said Sunday in Gulfport, Miss., where she and a group of friends bound for Atlanta stopped for a rest.Many others in New Orleans, including stranded tourists, stayed behind, with as many as 10,000 of them crowding into the Superdome arena, which the city designated as a shelter of last resort.People five and six abreast waited in line for hours to get into the arena, clutching children, blankets and pillows, oversize pieces of luggage or plastic bags filled with belongings.”When you are on a holiday you don’t really follow these kind of things,” Neil Coffey, 35, a tourist from Britain, said as he stood in line to get into the Superdome. “We were surprised. We don’t get hurricanes like this at home.”Ernest Paulin Jr., a 55-year-old unemployed welder from New Orleans, said he looked around his three-bedroom, wood-frame house where he has lived alone since the death of his wife last year and decided to head for the Superdome.”I just didn’t want to take a chance,” said Paulin, who like many arrived with hastily-packed possessions. He was carrying a small plastic bag containing his eyeglasses, medication and a paperback book, a Tony Hillerman novel, “The First Eagle.”After crossing South Florida late last week, killing nine people as a weaker storm, Hurricane Katrina intensified over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, growing early Sunday morning into a Category 5 storm, the strongest step on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Since records have been kept, there have only been three Category 5 storms to hit the United States – Hurricane Andrew, which ravaged Florida and Louisiana in 1992; Hurricane Camille, which cut a path through parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia in 1969; and an unnamed storm that hit the Florida Keys in 1935.The approaching storm shut down much of the oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, which is responsible for one-quarter of American oil production. The price of oil rose more than $4 a barrel on Sunday.President Bush, vacationing at his ranch in Texas, declared a state of emergency for the Gulf Coast, a move that cleared the way for immediate federal aid. Bush also urged people in the storm’s potential path to head for safer ground.”We cannot stress enough the danger this hurricane poses to Gulf Coast communities,” he said.The president also participated in a videoconference on Sunday with federal, state and local disaster management officials who were preparing for the storm. And he spoke by telephone with the governors of the four states under immediate threat – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.Fierce winds and rains and formidable tidal surges also threatened the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.In an unnervingly quiet New Orleans, many restaurants and stores in the French Quarter were shuttered and hotels, almost all fully booked, struggled to accommodate visitors whose flights had been canceled and who were trapped in the city. The hotels were also a refuge for many residents, who sought rooms above ground level in hope of staying dry.”We call it a vertical evacuation,” said Joseph Fein, owner of the Court of Two Sisters, a French Quarter restaurant. Fein said the city was responding much as it had to many previous hurricane threats, but that Hurricane Katrina was “the most threatening we have seen.”Instead of preparing brunch, employees at Fein’s restaurant, one of the largest in the French Quarter, set to nailing plywood over the windows and carrying outdoor furniture inside.At the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, all 346 rooms were booked, and the hotel was putting up about 100 employees and members of their families, said Amiri Hayden, the concierge. “Between guests who are stuck and employees who are staying here, every room is taken,” Hayden said.Some out-of-town guests had taken taxis as far as Baton Rouge to find rental car agencies that were open, he said, adding that emergency officials hoped to use the Omni’s lobby as a staging area when the storm arrived. But the direst predictions suggested that the lobby would be underwater, he said.Louisiana state officials said that at one point during the evacuation of New Orleans on Sunday, more than 18,000 cars an hour were leaving the city. They were unable to estimate how many cars might have remained.”I think this storm is bigger than anything we have dealt with before,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. “This is not a minor problem.”Officials in Attorney General Charles Foti’s office said they were investigating about a half dozen cases of price gouging, including increased prices on gas generators and hotel rooms. The Louisiana Legislature recently passed a law stiffening penalties for price gouging when hurricanes are in the Gulf of Mexico. Further east on the Gulf Coast, the party atmosphere promoted by the region’s many casinos was nowhere in evidence. Casinos built on barges were dark on Sunday, and people all along the Mississippi coast – which has added housing and businesses rapidly in recent decades – were ordered to evacuate.In Gulfport, about 80 miles east of New Orleans, residents feared a repeat of Hurricane Camille, which smashed into the Mississippi coast with winds of 200 mph, killing 250 people over several states.”I’m afraid this is the one we’ve dreaded,” said Ralph A. Latham Jr., the director of Emergency Management Operations for Mississippi. “I don’t think the scenario could be any worse for us.”In Gulfport, the authorities were making about a dozen schools and other public buildings available as shelters. But Joe Spraggins, the director of emergency Operations for Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi to the east, urged residents to go to shelters only as a last resort. Most of the buildings were built years ago, he said, and were not designed to withstand the anticipated winds of 140 to 150 mph.”We’re asking people to get out of the area,” Spraggins said, “and to get out fast.””If you know anybody who is going to a shelter,” he told emergency workers, “talk to them about leaving. They would be a lot safer.”Yet he and other emergency officials acknowledged that the hurricane could chase evacuees on a northeasterly route. Mobile, Ala., expected a storm surge of up to 20 feet, much higher than any it has experienced to date, that could flood its historic downtown. Further east in the Florida Panhandle, residents of barrier islands were urged to evacuate as Hurricane Katrina began sloshing water onto coastal roads and near homes.”We’re all getting a little tired of going through this drill,” said Eric Landry of Pensacola, who was shuttering his house on Sunday afternoon, not quite a year after Hurricane Ivan ravaged that city. “But we’re not at the point of moving away. This is just what you have to live with.”The Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose director, Michael D. Brown, flew to Baton Rouge on Sunday, was waiting to determine where the agency would need to deploy supplies and specialized personnel. A spokeswoman said FEMA had mobilized several hundred specialists, including about 20 medical teams and a smaller number of urban search and rescue teams.The agency has also begun moving water, ice and military Meals Ready to Eat to sites in the Southeast, said the spokeswoman, Natalie Rule.