Eye of Hurricane Katrina

As Hurricane Katrina moves further onshore in the Gulf of Mexico, the squall has been downgraded it to a Category 2 storm, sparing New Orleans the total devastation that was predicted for the city but still causing a number of major disruptions and concerns.

Katrina, which hit land this morning with winds in excess of 145 miles an hour, has caused a number of levees to break in New Orleans, leading authorities to fret over the potential for widespread flooding, though, at the same time, popular areas of the city such as the French Quarter are free from rising water for the time being.

While the hurricane first was predicted to hit New Orleans head-on, it came ashore east of the city.

Meanwhile, the storm has damaged the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, home to the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints. While damage and water leakage so far is minimal, some analysts worry the structure could suffer further damage because it is not rated to withstand winds in excess of 120 miles per hour. That’s a problem, say officials, because the dome is currently housing some 12,000 of the area’s poor, homeless and frail. The dome has a seating capacity of 77,000.

The storm has also caused damage in other parts of New Orleans. Local authorities report some building collapses, and say high winds and debris have caused destruction to cars, homes and businesses.

Mayor Ray Nagin said a number of pumps protecting low-lying parts of the city have failed, causing flooding of as much as eight feet in the Lower 9th Ward, on the east side. At the same time, the National Weather Service is reporting “total structural failure” in parts of metropolitan New Orleans.

The flooding has led to more than 100 calls to police from people who are trapped on rooftops and other areas. Authorities say they are working diligently to respond to the calls but the rising floodwaters are making the task much more difficult.

So far, about 1 million people have fled the area.

Experts believe up to 15 inches of rain could fall on New Orleans before the hurricane moves out of the area.

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.

Referring to damage of the New Orleans stadium, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco commented to the Associated Press: “The Superdome is not in any dangerous situation.”

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.

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.

Anticipating the largest disaster-relief mobilization in its history, the American Red Cross has issued an “all hands on deck” request to every chapter in the U.S., asking local branches of the organization to send as many staff and volunteers as possible to help with recovery efforts in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

The evacuation of the city 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.

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 had 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 flooding damage in much of the city, Katrina could still produce the nation’s greatest natural disaster ever.

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