Sunday, August 28, 2005
By Bruce Nolan
Staff writer

More than a million people were jolted out of their weekend routines and spent a tense, hot Saturday preparing for a surprising Hurricane Katrina, which curved unexpectedly toward the low-lying city and is expected to make landfall Monday morning.

Katrina was expected to approach the area as a Category 4 storm, with winds of 145 mph, and it could build to a top-of-the-chart Category 5 storm, with winds of 155 mph or higher, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Saturday afternoon.

Tracking westward Saturday after crossing south Florida on Thursday, the storm began a turn toward the north and intensified, fed by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The storm seemed to pose the most serious threat of a direct hit to the area since 1998, when Hurricane Georges barreled toward metropolitan New Orleans before veering at the last moment to Ocean Springs, Miss., with winds of 105 mph.

Walter Maestri, Jefferson Parish's emergency management director, gauged the threat in terms that chilled New Orleanians old enough to remember the summers of 1965 and 1969: Katrina was following Hurricane Betsy's track, he said, with the strength of Hurricane Camille.

A computer model run by the LSU Hurricane Center late Saturday confirmed that. It indicated the metropolitan area was poised to see a repeat of Betsy's flooding, or worse, with storm surge of as much as 16 feet moving up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and topping levees in Chalmette and eastern New Orleans, and pushing water into the 9th Ward and parts of Mid-City. High water flowing from Lake Pontchartrain through St. Charles Parish also would flood over levees into Kenner, according to the model.

Also flooded would be much of the north shore below Interstate 12, including Slidell, Madisonville, Mandeville and Lacombe, according to the model.

And the model doesn't take into account the 5- to 10-foot waves that would be on top of the surge, which could top levees all along the south shore of the lake.

On Saturday at 7 p.m., the Hurricane Center placed the storm 360 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, with winds of 115 mph. The forecast projected the storm sweeping directly over the city.

The Hurricane Center posted a hurricane warning from Morgan City to the Alabmama-Florida line.

President Bush declared a state of emergency in Louisiana, authorizing federal emergency management officials to release federal aid and coordinate disaster relief efforts.

By mid-afternoon, officials in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, Lafourche, Terrebonne and Jefferson parishes had called for voluntary or mandatory evacuations.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin followed at 5 p.m., issuing a voluntary evacuation.

Nagin said late Saturday that he's having his legal staff look into whether he can order a mandatory evacuation of the city, a step he's been hesitant to do because of potential liability on the part of the city for closing hotels and other businesses.

"Come the first break of light in the morning, you may have the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans," Nagin told WWL-TV.

St. Tammany officials ordered evacuations of the parish's low-lying areas by today at noon.

Contraflow in effect

State Police activated the state's redesigned contraflow plan Saturday at 4 p.m., allowing traffic to use both sides of Interstates 55, 59 and 10 to evacuate New Orleans to the north, east and west after early afternoon traffic left westbound lanes of I-10 backed up bumper-to-bumper for miles in the 93-degree heat. Within hours, however, the contraflow system seemed to have alleviated much of the logjam.

The Crescent City Connection and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway suspended toll collections to move traffic more quickly.

Those leaving the city by air found Louis Armstrong International Airport busy, but all airlines operated with normal schedules Saturday, airport spokeswoman Michelle Duffourc said.

But would-be passengers expecting to make a last-minute departure today may be hard-pressed to find a flight. Delta Airlines already had suspended all flights today, and United Airlines was planning to suspend its afternoon flights.

Duffourc said other airlines probably will make their decisions based on how quickly the weather deteriorates.

"My guess is most will fly till midday," she said.

Levee board officials around the area closed or prepared to close floodgates to protect low-lying areas. The Orleans Parish Levee District said it would close floodgates and sever Louisiana 11 and U.S. 90 at today at 6 p.m., cutting that route to or from the city. Most other floodgates already were closed.

Residents prepare

All day Saturday people pumped gas into their cars, scooped up last-minute supplies from groceries and visited ATMs.

Tulane University canceled student orientation and advised new students just arriving from all over the country to evacuate.

In Algiers, Ada Boutchard loaded groceries into her minivan and prepared to leave for Little Rock, Ark., with her husband and mother-in-law at a particularly bad time: The two toddlers evacuating with them were both sick.

For tens of thousands of residents, the storm's turn toward New Orleans was a jolt.

Many stopped paying attention to Katrina when a Friday forecast showed it curving into the Florida Panhandle.

Raymond Breaux, a housing consultant, was headed unconcerned to a funeral Saturday morning when his wife reached him by cell phone with an alarming update: The Hurricane Center overnight had shifted the track westward and placed it right over New Orleans.

Breaux was astonished: "I said, 'What?' "

By mid-morning Breaux was trying to decide where to go -- Atlanta, Austin or elsewhere -- the trip complicated by the need to bring his frail, 92-year-old mother.

'This is the real deal'

As the day unwound, public officials stressed that the city faced a threat of the first magnitude.

"This is a day that will demand your full attention and cooperation," Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard warned at mid-afternoon.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal," Nagin said at his news conference a little later.

Nagin said the city would open the Superdome as a special-needs shelter today at 8 a.m. He advised anyone planning to stay there to bring food, drinks and other comforts, such as folding chairs, as if planning to go camping.

Citizens must call 568-3200 to verify that they qualify for admittance to the shelter, city officials said. Phone lines will be open at 7 a.m.

Nagin spokeswoman Tami Frazier stressed that the mayor does not want citizens to plan on staying in the Dome -- instead, they should make arrangements to leave the city if possible.

"We don't anticipate having to turn people away," Frazier said. "But (staying in the Dome) should not be a situation that you're counting on."

Nagin added, "No weapons, no large items, and bring small quantities of food for three or four days, to be safe."

The Regional Transit Authority will deploy 10 buses equipped with a special lift to help handicapped residents get to the Superdome this morning, RTA spokeswoman Rosalind Blanco Cook said.

Once at the Dome, residents' needs will be assessed. Those who are critically ill will be taken by ambulance to a medical facility in Baton Rouge, she said. Others will be brought to Baton Rouge in the paratransit buses.

Beginning at noon, as officials prepare to open the Dome as a shelter of last resort, the RTA will begin ferrying passengers to the facility from 12 locations around the city. Those locations are:

-- Arthur Monday Senior Citizens Center, 1111 Newton St.

-- E.J. Morris Senior Center, 1616 Caffin Ave.

-- Eleanor McMain Magnet Secondary School, 5712 S. Claiborne Ave.

-- Warren Easton Fundamental High School, 3019 Canal St.

-- Sylvanie F. Williams School, 3127 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

-- Israel Augustine Middle School, 425 S. Broad St.

-- Sarah T. Reed High School, 5316 Michoud Blvd.

-- Marion Abramson Senior High School, 5552 Read Blvd.

-- L.E. Rabouin Career Magnet School, 727 Carondelet St.

-- O. Perry Walker High School, 2832 Gen. Meyer Ave.

-- New Orleans Mission, 1130 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

-- William Frantz School, 3811 N. Galvez St.

Cook also said streetcar service on St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street will be replaced by buses in case power goes out.

Generally, RTA regular service will continue until the weather doesn't allow it or a curfew is imposed by city officials, she said.

Though no curfew had been issued by Saturday evening, New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass said he and Nagin likely will call a curfew and station police officers at local shopping centers to prevent looting.

"Looters will be dealt with severely and harshly and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," he said.

Entergy Corp. officials said the company has geared up for disaster with about 7,500 lineman and tree-trimmers ready to mobilize.

Company officials said they were arranging for out-of-state utility crews to help repair what is expected to be extensive damage to the area's power grid. But it warned that many crews it relies on are committed to repairing Katrina's damage in south Florida, perhaps prolonging repairs after the storm's Louisiana passage.

. . . . . . .

Reporters Meghan Gordon, Gordon Russell, Mark Schleifstein, Brian Thevenot and Mark Waller and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344

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