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Hurricane Lili runs out of steam

Louisiana breathes a sigh of relief after storm fails to match forecasters' fears.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002
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LAFAYETTE, La. -- When Hurricane Lili arrived Thursday morning, some of the neighbors on Brentwood Boulevard huddled with flashlights inside their boarded-up homes. Others went outside to play in the stinging, horizontal rain.

Then the massive oak trees that lined the street started creaking in the hurricane-force winds.

One by one, they toppled over, punching holes in houses and making the residential street impassable. Still, the inhabitants of Brentwood Boulevard and the rest of south central Louisiana were relatively lucky.

Lili wasn't nearly as bad as feared.

On Wednesday night, they were looking down the barrel of a terrifying Category 4 hurricane with 145 mph wind gusts and a 12- to 16-foot storm surge that would have put entire towns under water.

But when Louisianans woke Thursday morning, they learned Lili had unexpectedly weakened into a Category 2 storm.

"Thank the good Lord," said Elise Beauchamp, a Lafayette mother of five who had prayed all night. The marshy, low Acadiana region sustained widespread wind damage, but no deaths and few injuries.

Winds did reach 80 mph to 100 mph, and Lili spawned a number of damaging tornadoes in the region. Some 350,000 lost electricity, many more fled their homes, and property damage ran well into the millions of dollars. Roads leading north from the coast were blocked with downed tree limbs, snapped power lines and debris.

But just two people were reported injured -- water plant workers hurt when the building's brick facade collapsed. And for the second time in as many weeks, New Orleans, which lies below sea level, was spared a cataclysmic storm that could fill the city like a bowl.

"I'm just so thankful. It could have killed people," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. He said that cooler Gulf waters as the hurricane moved north, as well as drier air, weakened it. But he added, "There are things that go on in the inner core that we simply don't understand."

By early Thursday afternoon, the worst winds had moved north, and Lili was downgraded again, this time to a tropical storm. Late Thursday, it was barely strong enough to be considered a tropical storm.

Throughout Louisiana there was a collective sigh of relief.

"This could have easily been divine intervention," Gov. Mike Foster told a local radio station. "I know some people don't believe that. We have had divine intervention in my opinion."

Because of the damage, Foster formally asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance, and President Bush declared all of Louisiana a disaster area.

Just a week ago, Tropical Storm Isidore swept into the bayou country of Louisiana south of New Orleans, swamping coastal towns and hamlets and dumping heavy rains on The Big Easy. Isidore was a huge storm, but not a devastatingly strong one; its worst sustained winds were about 60 mph. By contrast, Lili seemed compact, potent and potentially lethal.

All Wednesday, thousands of coastal residents fled, their cars thronging every major artery leading north.

Lafayette, about 60 miles from the coast, was directly in Lili's path, but some people took shelter here anyway, particularly those too sick or elderly to move very far.

When the eyewall hit Lafayette, it rained sideways. The power went out and stayed out.

Coastal residents who had evacuated waited and worried about their homes.

"I am really afraid. I can't handle that wind noise," said Jan Comeaux, a 36-year-old paralegal whose home is in Perry, 10 miles off the Gulf coast. "I am weak in the knees and I think I'm going to throw up."

After Lili passed, Lafayette was a near-abandoned wasteland of boarded-up and damaged buildings, and downed power lines, trees and signs. Not a single traffic light worked.

The Acadiana region is known for Cajun cooking. It's a hot, sweet place that grows sugar cane and hot peppers. The people are spirited.

Roughly half of Lafayette's residents had fled before the storm. The rest stayed, emptying the stores of water, plywood and beer.

On the south end of town, on Brentwood Boulevard in a middle-class neighborhood, neighbors hunkered down.

The Martin family spent Thursday morning sitting on a mattress in the central hallway of their boarded-up brick house, listening to Lili updates on a battery-powered, frog-shaped shower radio.

"I'm 46, and this is the worst hurricane I remember," said social worker Jan Martin. The only family member who ventured outside was her daughter-in-law, who danced in the whipping rain with some neighborhood kids.

"It stung the backs of your legs a little, said Misty Martin, 24.

Suddenly, the family heard what 12-year-old Emma Martin described as a "crackle, crackle, crackle, boom." The enormous tree in their front yard was now in the street. It was the first of many trees to go.

Next door, 60-year-old freelance photographer Bunny Snow had just walked out of her bathroom when she heard, "a big loud thump." A tall pecan pecan tree in her back yard had fallen onto her roof, smashing her bathroom ceiling and filling the room with wet insulation.

Snow grabbed her frightened dog and called her husband, who is in Houston on business.

"He said, "it's okay, the house is strong, you'll be fine,' " Snow recalled.

Thursday afternoon, once the danger had passed, neighbors stood on their street in the pelting rain and compared notes.

"The world feels very small when a hurricane goes by," said Carol Brown, 36. "You know the hurricane is hitting for miles around, but you only think about your neighborhood."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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