By ADAM NOSSITER, Associated Press Writer Mon Aug 29, 8:38 AM ET
Katrina, which weakened slightly overnight to a Category 4 storm, turned slightly eastward before hitting land, which would put the western eyewall the weaker side of the strongest winds over New Orleans.
ButDirector Max Mayfield warned that New Orleans would be pounded throughout the day Monday and that Katrina's potential 20-foot storm surge was still more than capable of swamping the city.
Katrina, which a day before had grown to a 175-mph, Category 5 behemoth, made landfall about 6:10 a.m. CDT east of Grand Isle in the bayou town of Buras.
The storm hammered the Gulf Coast with huge waves and tree-bending winds. Exploding transformers lit up the predawn sky in Mobile, Ala., while tree limbs littered roads and a blinding rain whipped up sand on the deserted beach of Gulfport, Miss.
Katrina's fury also was felt at the Louisiana Superdome, normally home of professional football's Saints, which became the shelter of last resort for about 9,000 of the area's poor, homeless and frail.
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 cannot run the air conditioning.
About 370,000 customers in southeast Louisiana were estimated to be without power, said Chenel Lagarde, spokesman for Entergy Corp., the main energy power company in the region.
At the hotel Le Richelieu in New Orleans' French Quarter, the winds blew open sets of balcony doors shortly after dawn. Seventy-three-year-old Josephine Elow pressed her weight against the broken doors as a hotel employee tried to secure them.
"It's not life-threatening," Mrs. Elow said as rain water dripped from her face. "God's got our back."
The wind in New Orleans was blowing the rain sideways, and debris was carried up more than 100 feet. Power was on and off in sections of the city, and emergency vehicles patrolled the main streets, their blue and red lights flashing.
"I'd rather watch this than watch a movie," said Steven Grades, 22, one of the Superdome evacuees as he looked out through the windows at the gathering storm.
Mayor Ray 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.
"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."
Crude oil futures spiked to more than $70 a barrel in Singapore for the first time Monday 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 would help police New Orleans streets.
The head of Jefferson Parish, which includes major suburbs and juts all the way to the storm-vulnerable coast, said some residents who stayed would be fortunate to survive.
"I'm expecting that some people who are die-hards will die hard," parish council President Aaron Broussard said.
The evacuation itself claimed lives. Three New Orleans nursing home residents died Sunday 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.
Katrina, which cut across Florida last week, had intensified into a colossal Category 5 over the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of 175 mph before weakening as it neared the coast.
The storm held a potential surge of 18 to 28 feet that would easily top New Orleans' hurricane protection levees, as well as bigger waves and as much as 15 inches of rain.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the north-central Gulf Coast from Morgan City, La., to the Alabama-Florida line. Tornado warnings were posted for Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
For years, forecasters have warned of the nightmare scenario a big storm could bring to New Orleans, a bowl of a city that's up to 10 feet below sea level in spots and dependent on a network of levees, canals and pumps to keep dry from the Mississippi River on one side, Lake Pontchartrain on the other.
The fear is that flooding could overrun the levees and turn New Orleans into a toxic lake filled with chemicals and petroleum from refineries, as well as waste from ruined septic systems.
Nagin said he expected the pumping system to fail during the height of the storm. The mayor said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was standing by to get the system running, but water levels must fall first.
"We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared," he said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
Major highways in New Orleans cleared out late Sunday after more than 24 hours of jammed traffic as people headed inland. At the peak of the evacuation, 18,000 people an hour were streaming out of southeastern Louisiana, state police said.
On inland highways in Louisiana and Mississippi, heavy traffic remained the rule into the night as the last evacuees tried to reach safety. In Orange, Texas, Janie Johnson of thedescribed it as a "river of headlights."
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 has 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.
Evacuation orders also were posted all along the Mississippi coast, and the area's casinos, built on barges, were closed early Saturday. Bands of wind-whipped rain increased Sunday night and roads in some low areas were beginning to flood.
"Hopefully, it will take a turn and we'll be spared the brunt of it, but it just don't look like that," said James Bosco, who was packing up a final few items from his beachfront apartment in Gulfport. "I just hope everybody makes it all right. We can always rebuild."
Alabama officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for low-lying coastal areas. Mobile Mayor Michael C. Dow said flooding could be worse than the 9-foot surge that soaked downtown during Hurricane Georges in 1998. Residents of several barrier islands in the western Florida Panhandle were also urged to evacuate.
Katrina hit the southern tip of Florida as a much weaker storm Thursday and was blamed for nine deaths. It left miles of streets and homes flooded and knocked out power to about 1.45 million customers. It was the sixth hurricane to hit Florida in just over a year.
Associated Press reporters Mary Foster, Holbrook Mohr, Brett Martel and Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.
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