NEW ORLEANS – With a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on his below-sea-level city, Mayor C. Ray Nagin made what pleas he could to his fellow citizens to flee and then left it in the hands of a higher power.
“God bless us,” a grim Nagin said Sunday as Hurricane Katrina’s 160 mph winds swirled on a seemingly irreversible course toward the Big Easy.
Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city’s 485,000 residents and opened the Superdome as a shelter of last resort, bluntly warning those who stayed that they would be at the mercy of Katrina’s high winds, 28-foot storm surge and 15 inches of rain that threaten to overwhelm the city’s protective levees.
“We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared,” Nagin said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Katrina intensified into a Category 5 giant over the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of 175 mph before weakening slightly on a path to hit New Orleans after dawn today. That would make it the city’s first direct hit in 40 years and the most powerful storm ever to slam the city.
For those who were evacuated, it wasn’t an easy trip. Traffic backed up bumper-to-bumper on many highways.
Three nursing-home patients being bused to a Baton Rouge, La., church died, one aboard the bus, another at the church and the third at a hospital, the local coroner said Sunday. “These folks are pretty fragile when they’re put on these buses,” said Don Moreau of the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner’s office.
Forecasters warned that Mississippi and Alabama also are in danger from the storm. Because of its size – hurricane-force winds extended up to 105 miles from the center – even areas far from landfall could be devastated.
Even as the eye of the hurricane was still more than 100 miles south of Grand Isle, the barrier island recorded sustained winds of nearly 44 mph and gusts up to 55 mph.
The eye of the hurricane was expected to hit Grand Isle, about 60 miles south of New Orleans, around 8 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said.
“The conditions have to be absolutely perfect to have a hurricane become this strong,” said the hurricane center’s director, Max Mayfield. He said Katrina may become more powerful than 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which had winds of 165 mph and leveled parts of South Florida, killed 43 people and caused $31 billion in damage.
“It’s capable of causing catastrophic damage,” Mayfield said. “Even well-built structures will have tremendous damage. Of course, what we’re really worried about is the loss of lives.
“New Orleans may never be the same.”
Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard said some who have ridden out previous storms in the New Orleans area may not be so lucky this time.
“I’m expecting that some people who are die-hards will die hard,” he said.
By 10 p.m. PDT Sunday, Katrina’s eye was about 90 miles south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and 150 miles south-southeast of New Orleans. The storm was moving toward the north-northwest at about 10 mph and was expected to turn northward. A hurricane warning was in effect for the north-central Gulf Coast from Morgan City, La., to the Alabama-Florida line.
Despite the dire predictions, a group of residents in a poor central-city neighborhood sat on a porch with no car, no way out and, surprisingly, no fear.
“We’re not evacuating,” said Julie Paul, 57. “None of us have any place to go. We’re counting on the Superdome. That’s our lifesaver.”
The Superdome, the 70,000-seat home of professional football’s Saints, was opened as an emergency shelter at daybreak Sunday, giving first priority to frail, elderly people. They were told to bring enough food, water and medicine to last up to five days.
“They told us not to stay in our houses because it wasn’t safe,” said Victoria Young, 76, who uses a metal walker. “It’s not safe anywhere when you’re in the shape we’re in.”
Fitter residents waited for hours to get in, clutching meager belongings and crying children. By nightfall, more than 9,000 refugees were safely inside, seated in the stands because of fears the field could flood.
In the French Quarter on a balcony above Bourbon Street, Tony Peterson leaned over a railing festooned with gold, purple and green wreaths as Katrina’s first rains pelted his shaved head.
“I was going to the Superdome and then I saw the two-mile line,” the 42-year-old musician said. “I figure if I’m going to die, I’m going to die with cold beer and my best buds.”
Airport Holiday Inn manager Joyce Tillis spent the morning calling her 140 guests to tell them about the evacuation order. Tillis, who lives inside the flood zone, also called her three daughters to tell them to get out.
“If I’m stuck, I’m stuck,” Tillis said. “I’d rather save my second generation if I can.”
But the evacuation was slow-going. Highways in Louisiana and Mississippi were jammed as people headed away from Katrina’s expected landfall. All lanes were limited to northbound traffic on Interstates 55 and 59 and westbound on I-10. At the peak, 18,000 vehicles an hour were streaming out of southeastern Louisiana.
By Sunday night, most major highways were cleared, and state police warned that late escapes would be impossible after high winds hit elevated expressways over surrounding swamps.
Hotels filled up quickly as evacuees headed away from the coast. In Orange, Texas, more than 90 people who couldn’t find hotel rooms settled in at the First Baptist Church, where activities were set up for children.
Evacuation orders also were posted along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts and on barrier islands of the Florida Panhandle, where crashing waves swamped some coastal roads.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the Waterford nuclear plant about 20 miles west of New Orleans had been shut down as a precaution.
Tourists stranded by the shutdown of New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Airport and the lack of rental cars packed the lobbies of high-rise hotels, which were exempt from the evacuation order to give people a place for “vertical evacuation.”
Tina and Bryan Steven, of Forest Lake, Minn., sat glumly on the sidewalk outside their hotel in the French Quarter.
“We’re choosing the best of two evils,” said Bryan Steven. “It’s either be stuck in the hotel or stuck on the road. … We’ll make it through it.”
His wife, wearing a Bourbon Street T-shirt with a lewd message, interjected: “I just don’t want to die in this shirt.”