Hurricane Andrew slammed into the Louisiana bayous Tuesday night like a fist from the sea, scattering possibly a million residents of this state as well as Texas and Mississippi who fled in its path, lest they be added to the 17 already killed in what could be the costliest natural disaster in American history.
Winds of 140 m.p.h. struck the marshy coast just before 10 p.m. CDT, said Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center. The winds weakened to 125 m.p.h., and Andrew's eye diffused as it moved along the shore. It aimed at the Morgan City area, 75 miles southwest of New Orleans and 45 miles southeast of this all-but-abandoned Cajun town near the Gulf of Mexico.
The hurricane hurled tornadoes as it went. Two struck at Reserve, a city of 7,200, about 30 miles west of New Orleans. One demolished five homes and the other destroyed an additional four as well as several trailer houses and a doctor's office nearby, said Arnold Labat, the president of St. John's Parish. He said a large number of people were hurt.
Thirty persons were taken to River Parishes Medical Center, spokeswoman Rose McDuffie told the Associated Press. Because the hospital had no electricity, she said, three of the more seriously injured were taken to hospitals in the New Orleans area. The Coast Guard told the AP that one of its helicopters rescued four people and two dogs from a boat south of Houma.
Low-lying parts of Grand Isle, Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island, disappeared under water. There was no immediate report of casualties. But the hurricane kept rescuers from reaching a boat in distress as well as stranded cars in Terrebonne Parish, in the bayous along the ravaged coastline. Sheets said he expected a swath of damage 50 miles wide.
Water swept across the roadways of Delcambre, this town of 2,200, only five miles north of Vermillion Bay, on the Gulf Coast. The town was abandoned by all but 30 of its residents. They included Police Chief Glenn Dore; his assistant, James Broussard; their men, and the volunteer firemen of Delcambre who refused to leave.
In slickers and hip waders and outfitted with over-and-under shotguns and large-caliber pistols, they played bourre , a Cajun card game, around a steaming pot of gumbo in the Delcambre fire house. "Head on," Broussard described the storm, as he viewed the chaos outside. The heavily armed men aimed to prevent any looting after the storm passed.
The hurricane, estimated to have caused $15 billion to $20 billion worth of damage so far in Florida and the Bahamas, appeared to be sparing New Orleans, about 120 miles east of here. Nonetheless, if those early damage estimates hold up, Andrew could double the record-setting destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo in the Carolinas in 1989.
Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards declared a state of emergency. People fled cities and towns in the bayous in a string of cars and pickup trucks that stretched bumper to bumper to the horizon. Their headlights peered through weather gray as wash water. At one point, the refugees formed a procession 3 1/2 miles long. It snaked along U.S. 90.
New Orleans was largely a ghost town, where silence hung in the air like a threat. Some bars closed along Bourbon Street. Windows were boarded up. The South Central Bell telephone building was sandbagged. Floodgates were closed in the levees that protect the city--some of it below sea level. The Orleans Levee District ran out of sandbags.
Those who stayed in the city breathed easier with announcements that Andrew would strike in Cajun country--and not in town. "We feel much better today than we did last night," said New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. "(But) we're not out of the woods." Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico were evacuated and the Coast Guard moved its boats inland.
Andrew headed toward Louisiana after churning across the Gulf of Mexico from Florida, where it swept across the tip of the peninsula south of Miami early Monday, killing 14 people and wreaking unspeakable destruction. The hurricane had come from the Bahamas, where it smashed into the islands over the weekend, killing three people.
Evacuation orders in Louisiana and its neighboring states were the more persuasive because of what residents knew about Florida, where Kate Hale, emergency management director for Dade County, estimated damage at $15 billion to $20 billion. Andrew left huge parts of the county in abject ruin.
At least 50,000 people were left homeless.
Dade County, which includes Miami, remained under dusk-to-dawn curfew. National Guardsmen were on duty to prevent looting.
Before the hurricane made its third landfall, officials in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi urged the evacuation of 2 million people--1.7 million from Louisiana alone, in an area stretching from the eastern suburbs of New Orleans to the Texas border. In Texas, according to news reports, 325,000 people were urged to leave Jefferson and Orange counties.
In Mississippi, officials suggested that 100,000 people leave low-lying areas of Harrison County. Many took the notice seriously. Elections were called off all along the three-county Mississippi coast. Summer school sessions were canceled. Gambling ships steamed out of the gulf into harbors and inland canals.
As far east as Alabama, some residents took no chances. Jim Walter, at Dauphin Island, hammered sheets of plywood across the windows of his new, uninsured home about 200 yards from the surf pounding in the gulf. His house was new, built on 10-foot stilts.
"If we lose this," he said, "it's just all gone."
The early winds of the hurricane brought intermittent squalls to the Louisiana coast. As the winds gusted with growing strength, falling debris cut power lines. About 5,500 people were without electricity, according to news reports.
As people fled from the bayous into the cities, hotel rooms grew scarce in New Orleans, Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Bobby Santine, the civil defense director in Grand Isle, said he was telling people:
"Either leave or let me know their next of kin."
Delores O'Neill fled to Lafayette from Erath, La., near Vermillion Bay, where the full fury of the hurricane was expected to strike. She and her three daughters were ordered to leave their house.
"We were going to stay, but then we had to get out," she said. "We're afraid our house is not going to be standing when we go back."
She and her daughters huddled in the Cajundome at the University of Southwest Louisiana in Lafayette. The Red Cross had turned it into an emergency shelter for 2,000 people. Because officials feared that the storm might damage the dome and its lantern-like structure on top, the refugees were scattered on three floors along the hallways around its perimeter.
Among them was Ted Ayo, a resident of Delcambre, who had fled his town earlier in the afternoon when the wind began gusting with increasing severity.
"This is the worst we've ever seen here," he said. "It's really going to be a bad night."
Many of the refugees in the Cajundome brought their own pillows and mattresses and enough food and water for the night. Starting today, the Red Cross said it would feed them.
The refugees included one man who had been recuperating at home from surgery. He was brought in on a gurney and wheeled into a special area of the shelter for people with health problems.
Another area was set aside for families with children.
"We've tried to segregate the infants and older people because of their special needs," said Rodney Girlinghouse, the shelter manager. "To be blunt, old people don't like screaming babies."
On the concrete floor against a wall, Eddie Stansbury, a resident of Lafayette, read a bedtime story to his daughters, Samantha, 2, and Veronica, 1.
"The more they talk on the news about how strong the winds are, the more scared we got," Stansbury said. "We are really scared because our house is surrounded by a lot of trees. I don't mind being inconvenienced for a couple of days for the safety of my family."
Outside, downtown Lafayette was deserted. Officials had imposed a curfew starting at 10 p.m. The sheriff and police said they would arrest anyone not at home or in a shelter.
Virtually every window was Xed with masking tape. Even some cars had their windows taped.
At Albertsons supermarket, Debby McFarland, a cashier, reported "a sea of people all day. There wasn't a cashier who wasn't in tears by the time they left. We've run out of bottled water and ice and flashlights and candles and any kind of canned meat."
In Baton Rouge, between Lafayette and New Orleans, two white-haired women got into a shoving match in a grocery store over the last two gallons of bottled water on the shelves. A teen-aged stock boy told news agencies he separated them.
He handed each a gallon.
"We got enough troubles," he scolded, "without this."
In New Orleans, airlines flew their jumbo jets out of town and the airport shut down. Mayor Barthelemy announced that 250 National Guardsmen would help police with city-wide security.
Thousands fled to nine shelters opened in the city.
One was at Warren Easton High School, where officials moved families out of the gymnasium and into a second-floor auditorium when wind punched out the windows. Among those moved were Laura Hunter and Lynn Dunlop, both 22, from Ireland on vacation, who had crossed the country from Los Angeles by train.
"We come here and there's a bloody hurricane," Hunter said. "I can't believe it."
Hundreds of others rushed to markets for candles, canned food and batteries. A spokesman for the Rural Super Store, a New Orleans-based grocery chain, said more than 5,000 flashlights were sold on Monday evening alone.
"All you have to do is look at what happened in Miami," said Ray Palais, as he hammered boards of various sizes across the windows of his uptown New Orleans cottage. "You have to take the proper precautions. After that, it's all in God's hands."
Taking the proper precautions meant taping Xs on windows everywhere to diminish the possibility of flying glass--and sawing, hammering and covering over bits and pieces of houses anywhere from 100 to 175 years old.
In one neighborhood, 81-year-old Louie Riedl opened a beer and laughed.
"I've been here all of my life," he said, "and everyone's always getting worried about the hurricane that's going to smash the city. All I know is, it ain't happened yet, so I'll be damned if I'm going to start worrying about it now."
By dusk, most of New Orleans, well known for its busy and musical streets, was a fortress against nature.
"I've got all the supplies I need for a couple of days," said Karen Jones, an architecture student whose dog slept peacefully on her living room couch. "I'm not coming out until I know, really know, this thing is over."
Victor Whitacre, manager of a downtown Walgreens drug store, paced his aisles looking for shoplifters as people jammed the aisles and kept all of his employees busy at the cash register.
"I see lots of bulging pockets," Whitacre barked at one employee while surveying the frenzy. He said he was having difficulty arranging delivery of more supplies. "We've been out of ice for a while," he said. "We're out of everything."
Outside the store, a homeless woman who would give her name only as Rita, said she could not understand all the fuss. Carrying all her belongings in a small wire basket, she said she planned to spend the night in "some big building that is closed."
She added: "I'm not worried. I've been through it before. You stay closed in, play cards, have a drink, do something. . . . You can't fight a hurricane. You accept it as such."
Police said many of the homeless ignored their warnings to take shelter.
"Tourists have already fled and the locals are doing one of two things--going north or to evacuation centers," said Sgt. Brian Monteverde. "We advise (the homeless) to go to shelters, but you can't force them."
In the French Quarter, there was no jazz. But some bars refused to close.
Seated on a bar stool and holding the leashes to two cocker spaniels, Mike Ortalano said he never considered evacuating.
"This is New Orleans," he said. "We have a reputation to maintain."
Frantz reported from Delcambre and Lafayette and Bunting from New Orleans. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writer Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles and special correspondent Gary Boulard in New Orleans.
Louisiana's Worst Nightmare
Cities along the Louisiana coast are protected by levees--earth and cement mounds rising 18 to 50 feet high along rivers, lakes and canals. But the low-lying coastal areas still dread "storm surges," high water pumped ashore by hurricanes:
The eye: Hurricane winds swirl around the eye, a calm area measuring about 20 miles across. After the eye passes over, winds whip up again, but from the opposite direction.
Wall clouds: The strongest winds and heaviest rain occur in the storm clouds surrounding the eye.
The fuel source: Warm water gives hurricanes their fuel. As water condenses and cools, it releases heat into the storm, causing winds to become more and more powerful.
Storm surges: Within the storm's eye, a violent drop in pressure has a plunger effect, creating walls of water that can flood coastal areas.
The Force of a Hurricane Wind
+ A hand held outside a car window at 70 m.p.h. is subjected to one-quarter the force of 140 m.p.h. winds*
+ A person could lean at a 45-degree angle into a 70 m.p.h. wind without falling
+ It is impossible to walk into an 80 m.p.h. wind without support from a hand railing or some other structure
+ At 120 m.p.h., a flying object such as a tree limb or lawn chair becomes lethal
+ A person caught in 130 m.p.h. wind would be lifted off the ground
+ A 160 m.p.h. wind is equal to 600 pounds of drag force
* Wind force increases four times because calculation is based on squaring the two speeds, as opposed to a linear calculation.
Source: Prof. Hans Hornung, California Institute of Technology
Location at 1 a.m. EDT today: About 90 miles south-southwest of New Orleans and 85 miles southeast of Lafayette.
Winds: 125 m.p.h
Storm direction: Northwest at 11 m.p.h.
Source: WeatherData, Inc., National Weather Service
(Orange County Edition, A14) How to Help Hurricane Victims
The Orange County chapter of the American Red Cross appealed Tuesday for money to help victims of Hurricane Andrew.
The Red Cross is urging people to send money rather than food or clothing, said Judy Iannaccone, a spokeswoman for the Orange County chapter.
Donations can be sent to:
Orange County Chapter of the American Red Cross
P.O. Box 11364
Santa Ana, Calif. 92711
Donations can also be charged to a credit card by calling (800) 842-2200. Spanish speakers can instead call (800) 257-7575.