Eye of Hurricane Katrina

As Hurricane Katrina hit land this morning with 145-mph winds, there was hope the downsized storm might avoid a direct hit on the city of New Orleans, averting a major catastrophe.

Katrina edged slightly to the east shortly before making landfall, as the hurricane traveled at 15 mph.

The fact that the storm is moving more rapidly, that winds had decreased slightly and that it appears to be striking to the east of New Orleans all provide hope the city will escape the total devastation feared by many prognosticators.

Katrina’s fury was soon felt at the Louisiana Superdome, normally home of professional football’s Saints, which became the shelter of last resort Sunday for about 9,000 of the area’s poor, homeless and frail.

Bread aisle at this Baton Rouge, La., grocery store left virtually empty as area residents rushed to buy supplies in advance of Hurricane Katrina (courtesy: Robert Terrell)

Electrical power at the Superdome failed at 5:02 a.m., triggering groans from the crowd. Emergency generators kicked in, but the backup power runs only reduced lighting and is not strong enough to run the air conditioning.

Chenel Lagarde, spokesman for Entergy Corp., the main energy power company in the region, said that 370,000 customers in southeast Louisiana were estimated to be without power.

Katrina’s intensity also caused parts of the Superdome’s roof to rip away.

The loss of roofing has led to some water leakage, say observers. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco is unconcerned.

“The Superdome is not in any dangerous situation,” she told the Associated Press.

Still, Superdome officials say the extent of damage is hard to estimate. “We have no way of getting anyone up there to look,” General Manager Glenn Menard told AP.

Even though the storm was hours away from New Orleans, Katrina’s advance winds were already blowing slate tiles off the old roofs of the French Quarter.

The wind was blowing the rain sideways, and debris was carried up more than 100 feet. Power was on and off in sections of the city, and emergency vehicles patrolled the main streets, their blue and red lights flashing.

Mayor Ray Nagin said he believed 80 percent of the city’s 480,000 residents had heeded an unprecedented mandatory evacuation as Katrina threatened to become the most powerful storm ever to slam the city.

Crude oil futures spiked to more than $70 a barrel in Singapore for the first time today as Katrina targeted an area crucial to the country’s energy infrastructure, but the price had slipped back to $68.95 by midday in Europe. The storm already forced the shutdown of an estimated 1 million barrels of refining capacity.

Terry Ebbert, New Orleans director of homeland security, said more than 4,000 National Guardsmen were mobilizing in Memphis and will help police New Orleans streets.

The head of Jefferson Parish, which includes major suburbs and juts all the way to the storm-vulnerable coast, said some residents who stayed would be fortunate to survive.

“I’m expecting that some people who are die-hards will die hard,” said parish council President Aaron Broussard.

The message left Sunday on boarded-up party store reads, ‘The party’s over Katrina. Go home!’ (courtesy: G.J. Charlet III)

The evacuation itself claimed lives. Three New Orleans nursing home residents died yesterday after being taken by bus to a Baton Rouge church. Don Moreau, of the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office, said the cause was likely dehydration.

The storm held a potential surge of 18 to 28 feet that would easily top New Orleans’ hurricane protection levees, as well as bigger waves and as much as 15 inches of rain.

In Washington, D.C., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it has been advised that the Waterford nuclear plant about 20 miles west of New Orleans has been shut down as a precautionary measure.

New Orleans has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane since Betsy in 1965, when an 8- to 10-foot storm surge submerged parts of the city in seven feet of water. Betsy, a Category 3 storm, was blamed for 74 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

Officials had prepared for the worst – much of the city under up to 30 feet of water polluted by toxic chemicals, human waste and coffins unearthed in the city’s legendary cemeteries.

With the possibility of more than 1 million homeless and total devastation in much of the city, Katrina could still produce the nation’s greatest natural disaster ever.

Computer simulations indicate that by tomorrow, vast swaths of New Orleans could be under water up to 30 feet deep. In the French Quarter, the water could reach 20 feet.

Estimates predict that 60 percent to 80 percent of the city’s houses will be destroyed by wind. With the flood damage, most of the people who live in and around New Orleans could be homeless.

“Hurricanes rarely sustain such extreme winds for much time. However we see no obvious large-scale effects to cause a substantial weakening of the system and it is expected that the hurricane will be of Category 4 or 5 intensity when it reaches the coast,” National Hurricane Center meteorologist Richard Pasch said.

Experts have also warned that the ring of high levees around New Orleans, designed to protect the city from floodwaters coming down the Mississippi, will only make things worse in a powerful hurricane. Katrina is expected to push a 28-foot storm surge against the levees.

Even if they hold, water will pour over their tops and begin filling the city with virtually nowhere to go.

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