NEW ORLEANS – One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to menace the United States is expected to slam into the nation’s most storm-vulnerable city Monday, sending panicked residents fleeing soon-to-be submerged homes Sunday – only to hit snarled traffic and face crammed, precarious shelters.

Nowhere else in the country would the sense of fear be more justified than in a city that’s 8 feet below sea level and facing 20 feet of levee-breaking flood waters from Hurricane Katrina.

“This has the potential to be as disastrous as the Asian tsunami. Tens of thousands of people could lose their lives. We could witness the total destruction of New Orleans as we know it,” Ivor van Heerden, director of the Lousiana State University Hurricane Center, said as he ticked off the threats New Orleans faces from the ground, ocean and sky.

More than 1 million people could be left stranded away from home as emergency authorities attempt to pump out the water, a task that may take as long as three weeks. The newly homeless would be left with little food, no electricity and no transportation as cars are replaced by boats. Emergency officials fear that nearly 287 years of history could be destroyed in just hours and that half of the old Victorian homes could be lost along with the old brick buildings of the Vieux Carre, the French Quarter.

The nightmare scenario gets worse: sewers could back up, spreading disease like malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, West Nile Virus and dengue fever, all of which pay calls at one of the nation’s biggest and oldest ports. Coffins could pop out of the shallow ground. Above-ground fuel tanks might break moorings to become boat bombs. And toxic chemicals could spill into the mix if petrochemical plants to the west break up.

City officials say more than 50,000 people may seek shelter at the Superdome football stadium – whose lower levels may flood – with another 50,000 staying home.

With maximum sustained winds topping 165 mph, Hurricane Katrina was in position Sunday to be the second-strongest storm to hit the United States, behind the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that destroyed Matecumbe Key and killed nearly 500 people.

“This is potentially one of the worst storms ever,” said University of Miami meteorology professor David Nolan, noting Katrina’s low pressure, large size, heavy winds, defined eyewall and heavy rains.

Katrina’s threat was so acute that President Bush joined the chorus of officials who urged New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to order a mandatory evacuation, issued Sunday morning after lower-lying areas outside the city were cleared Saturday.

The sheer size of Katrina led officials in Florida to mandate evacuations in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. All were rent nearly a year ago by the fierce winds and waves of Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 storm. On Sunday, Interstate 10, the main artery that crosses this Gulf Coast region, was a sea of cars, trucks and buses bearing Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi license plates.

In New Orleans, old timers like 58-year-old Joseph Bentley remember Hurricane Betsy in 1965 as if it were yesterday. That was a mere Category 3 storm – compared to Katrina’s Category 5 status – and busted the levee on the Industrial Canal, making evacuation possible only by boat in his Ninth Ward neighborhood just down the street from the home of jazz great Fats Domino.

“This is no Betsy. This is a nightmare,” Bentley said.

Bentley headed to the Superdome Sunday morning, just like most of the city’s low-income residents who had nowhere else to go in this poorest of American cities. By afternoon, the Superdome descended into sweaty chaos. About 30,000 refugees eventually arrived under the vigilance of the Louisiana National Guard.

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Officials had already confiscated weapons, including guns, raising fears of the unrest that took place at the dome in 1998. Then, 14,000 people waiting out Hurricane Georges, caused $10,000 in damage and looted another $8,500 in property. In anticipation of the massive flooding, people in the shelter would likely not be allowed to leave until Tuesday, when they would then be relocated by federal authorities, said Terry Ebbert, New Orlean’s director of Homeland Security.

Portable bathrooms had not been set up inside, and the dome’s water system could be affected by the storm. “That’s why these people are going to be very uncomfortable,” Ebbert said.

Looking beaten, Tim Duchene, 48, grimaced as he stood near the front of the line. He had waited three hours and tried in vain to take his medication to ease a ruptured disk in his back.

“Nobody brought us water. I tried to get one from them but they told me to get back in line,” Duchene said. “They weren’t prepared for this. I’d like to know how they’re going to feed all these people.”

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Leon Moore, 55, the left side of his body paralyzed for the past 12 years because of a stroke, pulled his weathered red truck up to the Superdome and angrily decried Mayor Nagin. “The mayor of the city didn’t make preparations for the handicapped,” he said.

The criticisms of Nagin came from above as well. Numerous officials urged him to evacuate the city, but he worried about the legality of ordering people out when New Orleans has few safe hurricane shelters for them to evacuate to. Also, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield in Miami called Nagin at home Saturday night and told him: Get people out of New Orleans.

“I could never sleep if I felt like I didn’t do everything that I could to impress upon people the gravity of the situation,” Mayfield said. “New Orleans is never going to be the same.”

When a grim Nagin issued the mandatory evacuation order Sunday, he said: “We are facing a storm that most of us have feared. … God bless us.”

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In Jefferson Parish, south of Orleans Parish, officials also issued an evacuation order – which also enables them to seize boats and buildings – and prepared for widespread suffering.

“Let’s watch. Let’s pray. Let’s leave,” Jefferson Parish President Aaron F. Broussard said at a news conference.

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Katrina is on one of the worst possible tracks for New Orleans as it aims for Lake Pontchartrain, a 40-mile-wide shallow reservoir whose waters are already above the city. The lake will likely top the levees if not smash them, spilling water into the wide shallow bowl that is the city, which was established by the French in 1718.

If the levees hold but the water spills over, the water will be almost impossible to remove, considering the pumps will be swamped and shutdown. Some of the city’s pumps sit in houses made in the 1890s, said Stevan Spencer, the Orleans Levee District’s chief engineer.

“It all really makes you wonder what the French were doing when they built this place,” Spencer said.

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But somehow, the city has always survived, always gone about its own business in its own way and always attracted people like John Martin, 60. He plans to stay in an 1820s brick Creole townhouse on Dumaine Street in the French Quarter. Martin, a druid and voodoo priest, said it’s tough to leave because he has four snakes, including a giant Burmese python, Eugene, who has gone into hiding.

The snake senses something coming, Martin said – something horrific.

“I don’t believe you’re going to go until God takes you,” Martin said. “I’ve lived a good, full life and I’m not worried about it. You’ve got to take life as it comes.”



(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jane Wooldridge contributed to this report.)



(c) 2005, The Miami Herald.

Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.herald.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA

AP-NY-08-28-05 2244EDT


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