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Monday, August 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Katrina floods the Big Easy, moves inland with a vengeance

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Announcing itself with shrieking, 145-mph winds, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast just outside New Orleans on Monday, submerging entire neighborhoods up to their roofs, swamping Mississippi's beachfront casinos and killing at least 55 people.

Jim Pollard, spokesman for the Harrison County emergency operations center, said 50 people were killed by Katrina in his county, with the bulk of the deaths at an apartment complex in Biloxi. Three other people were killed by falling trees in Mississippi and two died in a traffic accident in Alabama, authorities said.

For New Orleans — a dangerously vulnerable city because it sits mostly below sea level in a bowl-shaped depression — it was not the apocalyptic storm forecasters had feared.

But it was plenty bad, in New Orleans and elsewhere along the coast, where scores people had to be rescued from rooftops and attics as the floodwaters rose around them. An untold number of other people were feared dead in flooded neighborhoods, many of which could not be reached by rescuers because of high water.

"Some of them, it was their last night on Earth," Terry Ebbert, chief of homeland security for New Orleans, said of people who ignored orders to evacuate the city of 480,000 over the weekend. "That's a hard way to learn a lesson."

"We pray that the loss of life is very limited, but we fear that is not the case," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said.

Katrina knocked out power to more than a million people from Louisiana to the Florida's Panhandle, and authorities said it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone. Ten major hospitals in New Orleans were running on emergency backup power.

The federal government began rushing baby formula, communications equipment, generators, water and ice into hard-hit areas, along with doctors, nurses and first-aid supplies. The Pentagon sent experts to help with search-and-rescue operations.

Katrina was later downgraded to a tropical storm as it passed through eastern Mississippi, moving north at 21 mph. Winds were still a dangerous 65 mph.

Forecasters said that as the storm moves north through the nation's midsection over the next few days, it may spawn tornadoes over the Southeast and swamp the Gulf Coast and the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys with a potentially ruinous 8 inches or more of rain.

Oil refiners said damage to their equipment in the Gulf region appeared to be minimal, and oil prices dropped back from the day's highs above $70 a barrel. But the refiners were still assessing the damage, and the Bush administration said it would consider releasing oil from the nation's emergency stockpile if necessary.

Katrina had menaced the Gulf Coast over the weekend as a 175-mph, Category 5 monster, the most powerful ranking on the scale. But it weakened to a Category 4 and made a slight right-hand turn just become it came ashore around daybreak near the Louisiana bayou town of Buras, passing just east of New Orleans on a path that spared the Big Easy — and its fabled French Quarter — from its full fury.

In nearby coastal St. Bernard Parish, Katrina's storm surge swamped an estimated 40,000 homes. In a particularly low-lying neighborhood on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, a levee along a canal gave way and forced dozens of residents to flee or scramble to the roofs when water rose to their gutters. Across the region, the fierce winds of Katrina blew out windows in hospitals, hotels and high-rises.

"I've never encountered anything like it in my life. It just kept rising and rising and rising," said Bryan Vernon, who spent three hours on his roof, screaming over howling winds for someone to save him and his fiancee.

Across a street that had turned into a river bobbing with garbage cans, trash and old tires, a woman leaned from the second-story window of a brick home and pleaded to be rescued.

"There are three kids in here," the woman said. "Can you help us?"

Blanco said 200 people have been rescued in boats from rooftops, attics and other locations around the New Orleans area, a scene playing out in Mississippi as well. In some cases, rescuers are sawing through roofs to get to people in attics, and other stranded residents "are swimming to our boats," the governor said. In one dramatic resuce, a person was plucked from a roof by a helicopter.

A fire later tore through a yacht club near Lake Pontchartrain.

Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, Mississippi was subjected to both Katrina's harshest winds and highest recorded storm surges — 22 feet. The storm pushed water up to the second floor of homes, flooded floating casinos, uprooted hundreds of trees and flung sailboats across a highway.

"Let me tell you something, folks: I've been out there. It's complete devastation," said Gulfport, Miss., Fire Chief Pat Sullivan.

In Gulfport, young children clung to one another in a small blue boat as neighbors shuffled children and elderly residents out of a flooded neighborhood.

"Everything is flooded. Roofs are off and everything," said Shun Howell, 25, who was trying to leave with her 5-year-old son. "Everything is ruined."

In some cases, debris was stacked 4 to 5 feet, covering cars. Houses were washed from their foundations.

In Alabama, Katrina's arrival was marked by the flash and crackle of exploding transformers. The hurricane toppled huge oak branches on Mobile's waterfront and broke apart an oil-drilling platform, sending a piece slamming into a major bridge.

Muddy six-foot waves crashed into the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, flooding stately, antebellum mansions and littering them with oak branches.

"There are lots of homes through here worth a million dollars. At least they were yesterday," said a shirtless Fred Wright. "I've been here 25 years, and this is the worst I've ever seen the water."

It was Katrina's second blow: The hurricane hit the southern tip of Florida as a much weaker storm Thursday and was blamed for 11 deaths. It was the sixth hurricane to hit Florida in just over a year.

Calling it a once-in-a-lifetime storm, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had issued a mandatory evacuation order as Katrina drew near. But the doomsday vision of hurricane waters spilling over levees and swamping the city in a toxic soup of refinery chemicals, sewage and human bodies never materialized.

Forecasters said New Orleans — which has not been hit directly by a major storm since Category 3 Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965 — got lucky again.

"The real important issue here is that when it got to the metropolitan area, it was weaker," said National Hurricane Center deputy director Ed Rappaport, who estimated the highest winds in New Orleans were 100 mph.

A giant water main broke in New Orleans, making it unsafe to drink the city's water without first boiling it. And police made several arrests for looting.

At New Orleans' Superdome, home to 9,000 storm refugees, the wind ripped pieces of metal from the roof, leaving two holes that let water drip in. A power outage also knocked out the air conditioning, and the storm refugees sweltered in the heat.

Katrina also shattered scores of windows in high-rise office buildings and on five floors of the Charity Hospital, forcing patients to be moved to lower levels. White curtains that had been sucked out of the shattered windows of a hotel became tangled in treetops.

In the French Quarter, made up of Napoleonic-era buildings with wrought-iron balconies, the damage was relatively light.

On Jackson Square, two massive oak trees outside the 278-year-old St. Louis Cathedral came out by the roots, ripping out a 30-foot section of ornamental iron fence and straddling a marble statue of Jesus Christ, snapping off the thumb and forefinger of his outstretched hand.

At the hotel Le Richelieu, the winds blew open sets of balcony French doors shortly after dawn. Seventy-three-year-old Josephine Elow pressed her weight against the broken doors as a hotel employee tried to secure them.

"It's not life-threatening," she said as rainwater dripped from her face. "God's got our back."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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