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Hurricane Lashes a City Abandoned

Times Staff Writer

Bill Rau, the 45-year-old owner of a French Quarter antique shop that sells diamonds and 18th century clocks, flew his family to Dallas on Sunday, not because he knew anyone there but because it was the only way he could get out of town.

He thought about driving but feared that Hurricane Katrina -- a menacing storm with sustained winds of at least 160 mph expected to strike before 7 this morning -- would catch up with him while he sat in traffic.

So he spent $3,000 and bought the only tickets he could find: six one-way, first-class seats to Dallas.

John Higgins was struggling in a different way. The 49-year-old man hobbled through New Orleans as the wind picked up, carrying what he owned -- a purple comb, a radio and a pack of instant coffee -- on his back.

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The homeless shelter where Higgins usually stayed had closed because of fears that Katrina would destroy it. He had no car, no money and nowhere to go, so he was trying to make his way to the Louisiana Superdome, the downtown arena that had hosted Super Bowls and Bob Hope but was pressed into service as a storm shelter.

To some degree, Katrina was an equalizer, leaving Rau and Higgins clawing their way to safety.

But it also served as a reminder that this is a city of haves and have-nots. And on Sunday, by and large, the former got out of town -- about 1 million of the metropolitan area’s 1.6 million people, officials said -- and the latter were left behind.

“Ain’t that life?” Higgins asked.

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Those who remained in New Orleans, a large part of which sits below sea level, will probably wake this morning to calamity.

If Katrina maintains its strength, it will arrive as a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful. Only three Category 5 hurricanes have struck the United States. The last was Hurricane Andrew, which pummeled Florida in 1992.

Katrina grew after hitting Florida’s east coast Thursday as a Category 1 hurricane, causing 11 deaths before blowing across the state into the Gulf of Mexico, lifting fuel from the warm water.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation for the first time in the city’s history, calling the storm a “once-in-a-lifetime event.”

“The city of New Orleans has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly,” Nagin said as he and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco announced the evacuation at a news conference. “This is awesome.”

The National Hurricane Center in Miami issued dire warnings about the storm’s magnitude. By midnight, Katrina was moving northwest at 10 mph and had sustained winds of 160 mph and higher gusts. Hurricane-force winds extended 105 miles in every direction from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds stretched out 230 miles. The eye of the hurricane measured about 30 miles in diameter.

The Louisiana coast could experience storm surges as high as 28 feet, 15 inches of rain and tornadoes, the National Hurricane Center said. A 28-foot storm surge would be the highest ever recorded, officials said.

Katrina had developed into what leading forecasters had been worrying about for years: a mammoth storm bearing down on a densely populated coastal flat.

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Bill Read, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Katrina was the fourth-largest Atlantic hurricane ever measured, behind Gilbert in 1988, Allen in 1980 and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, which occurred before tropical storms were named.

Officials said Katrina rivaled Hurricane Camille, a notorious Gulf of Mexico storm that smashed into the Mississippi coast in August 1969 -- wiping out entire stretches of shoreline, destroying more than 5,600 homes and killing 259 people.

“At the moment, this one is stronger than Camille,” Read said. “It’s got everything we warn about going for it: It’s large and it’s going for vulnerable areas of the coast, so storm surge will be bad.”

Nagin said as many as 30,000 people had sought shelter at the Superdome by 5 p.m. and thousands more were in line, though the city had repeatedly urged residents to consider the arena a shelter of “last resort.” About a dozen other shelters had been opened, although some were full and people were turned away.

The mayor said people should be prepared to stay in shelters for as long as five days and should bring their own provisions. If power went out, electricity could remain off in parts of the city for six weeks, Nagin said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates disaster assistance, was sending teams with food, water, ice and generators to areas across the southeastern United States, said Natalie Rule, a spokeswoman.

In addition to supplies, the federal agency has prepared search-and-rescue teams and disaster medical units. “They’ll move in as soon as it’s safe,” Rule said.

President Bush signed emergency disaster declarations for Mississippi and Alabama, a move that will allow federal officials to coordinate more quickly with state and local officials. He signed a similar declaration for Louisiana on Saturday. State officials in Louisiana and Mississippi expect flooding.

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In the Gulf of Mexico, oil companies shut platforms and evacuated workers. One oil rig recorded a 65-foot swell.

Tens of thousands of people fled low-lying coastal areas in Louisiana and surrounding states Saturday and Sunday, and officials said many pockets of New Orleans were as they should be -- virtually deserted. In other areas, the mayor’s evacuation order prompted chaos.

Fistfights broke out at convenience stores when managers tried to close; one store clerk was forced to enlist a customer to lock and unlock the door to let the last customers out. Two dozen people were seen banging on the glass windows of a large hardware store, begging for plywood and other supplies.

By noon, traffic was bumper-to-bumper for 15 miles in any direction.

In the heart of New Orleans, a sense of dread settled over the streets. Although it is one of the most visited places in the nation, it is not a wealthy city. And it was clear that thousands of people did not have the means to evacuate. One man sat forlornly on a street corner with a backpack and an umbrella. Another man walked down Canal Street carrying only a pillow.

Many tourists were stranded; several people wept at Louis Armstrong International Airport, unable to get a flight or a rental car.

Pam Hendrix, a graphic designer, was in Houston on business when she realized how dangerous the storm was getting. She was one of the few people flying into New Orleans but said, “We’re only coming home so we can turn around and leave.”

As soon as she arrived home, she said, her family and pets would load into a car and drive to Monroe, La., where relatives lived.

“We’re all just crossing our fingers that we have jobs and homes to come back to,” she said. “The infrastructure of this city is so fragile. I don’t know if the city can recuperate from something like this. No one knows what’s going to happen because this has never happened before.”

As with many powerful hurricanes, much of the damage that Katrina will leave behind will probably come from flooding.

Nagin said he expected the storm to send water over the levees that protected New Orleans. If that happens, he said, it could take two weeks for the city to pump the water out.

Even the historic French Quarter, though it sits at a higher elevation than much of the surrounding city, could be under 20 feet of water.

Equally threatened, although less conspicuous, were low-lying regions like Terrebonne Parish, southwest of New Orleans. Sheriff Jerry Larpenter said about half of the parish’s 110,000 residents had evacuated. The morning could bring disaster for the area’s mostly poor population, he said.

“I don’t know of too many of [the area’s houses] that could withstand a [Category] 5,” he said. “These people are living from check to check. They don’t have the luxury of renting a camper and leaving town.”

After dark, a caravan of vehicles on Interstate 10 was moving at a snail’s pace through Baton Rouge. The drive northwest from New Orleans, which ordinarily takes an hour and 10 minutes, was dragging on for as much as 10 hours, said Melvin L. “Kip” Holden, mayor-president of Baton Rouge.

At the airport in New Orleans, antique shop owner Rau stood in line for chicken sandwiches with his daughter, fretting about the damage the water could bring but relieved that his family wouldn’t be around to face the storm.

Rau owns two homes in the New Orleans area. One, which is 6,000 square feet, was finished three weeks ago. It is on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain north of the city, where significant flooding is expected. Rau said he tried to bring some items into the house before his family left but, he said, “I think it’s all moot.”

“I’m sure it will be gone,” he said of the house. “We had five good nights there.”

Higgins, the homeless man, was taking it one night at a time.

By 4 p.m., sheets of rain began to fall and high winds kicked up clouds of dust. Higgins connected with two homeless friends whose shelters had also closed, and the three were trudging through the streets of downtown trying to get to the Superdome. Higgins said he had been there once before, to see the rock band Boston in the 1980s.

“This will be a little different, I guess,” he said.

Higgins was joined by Harry Oswald, 52, who had thick glasses and a towel tucked into the neck of his shirt to absorb sweat, and Leon Raines, 41, who was smoking the remnant of a cigarette he had found on the ground. They had tried several homeless shelters. Then they tried to nap in a park, but the wind picked up and safety became their main concern.

Together, the three walked up a ramp leading to the upper tier of the Superdome. They had, collectively, two bottles of water. Officials made no promises that they would be able to deliver food or water into the arena anytime soon.

A member of the National Guard stopped the three and sent them downstairs to get in line.

Two hundred feet below were 10,000 people -- women holding babies, men in wheelchairs, bored children. They carried pillows, bottles of water, Spider-Man sleeping bags, loaves of bread and cans of tuna in suitcases, shopping carts and garbage bags.

Nearly two hours later, as the skies darkened rapidly, the three men were finally at the doors of the Superdome, bickering about how long they would have to remain inside. Higgins insisted it would be “a few hours.” Raines said, “We could be there for a few weeks!”

Oswald tried to quiet them. “Well, we’ll be inside soon,” he said. “We’ve been walking the streets all day, man. It’ll be good to sit down.”

*

Times staff writers John-Thor Dahlburg in Miami, Ellen Barry in Baton Rouge, La., Lianne Hart in Houston and Peter Wallsten in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.


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