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New Orleans rocked by Hurricane Katrina

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 216 kph winds after the storm came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico and roared along the coast. 

Mike Keller, a resident of Biloxi, Mississippi, runs through the rain of Hurricane Katrina just after dawn August 29, 2005. (REUTERS/Mark Wallheiser)
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 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 (1500 GMT) it was downgraded to a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of near 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 surge. 

"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 atmosphere. 

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 back. 

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

WINDOWS OUT, POWER LOST 

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, 232 km 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, 117 km 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 125 km 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. 

(Additional reporting by Mark Babineck in Houston, Erwin Seba and Matt Daily in Lafayette, Russell McCulley in Baton Rouge and Alice Jackson in Biloxi) 

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