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Hurricane Katrina

Katrina on path west to hit La.

Residents of New Orleans, expecting the first major hit in four decades, gas up and leave town as people in the Panhandle enjoy an apparent reprieve.

Published August 28, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - On Bourbon Street, tourists jockeyed for the last cabs to the airport. On the interstate, traffic was bumper to bumper with cars headed out of town. At the Superdome, emergency officials pondered how to pack in the thousands of people who might not be able to leave.

In the city known for letting the good times roll, getting ready for Hurricane Katrina proved to be a sobering experience.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test," New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin warned his constituents Saturday. "This is the real deal."

With the storm drawing strength from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, National Weather Service computer models showed it slamming into the Louisiana coast around Monday as at least a Category 4 storm with winds of more than 155 mph.

Late Saturday, the Category 3 storm was located about 360 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, traveling west-northwest at 7 mph.

As Katrina's forecast shifted westward, Florida Panhandle residents were relieved to see a major hurricane that, for a change, did not appear to be taking aim at them. The Pensacola area was targeted by Hurricane Ivan last year and Hurricane Dennis last month.

Still, Florida officials well know that forecast tracks can change as fast as a hurricane's winds blow. So they cautioned Panhandle residents not to become complacent.

"The storm is not moving that much," state meteorologist Mike Lowry said, "so don't let your guard down quite yet."

"We're going to have some pretty heavy squalls, I would imagine, in the western Panhandle, even if it remains on its current track," he added.

The state has identified a "vulnerable population" of nearly 600,000 people who live in eight coastal northwest Florida counties. Gasoline was already in scarce supply in Northwest Florida, even as some motorists in the path of Katrina head east.

However, at Chuck E. Cheese's in Pensacola, Mandisa Dupont went ahead with her 28th birthday party as if there was no hurricane in the gulf.

"It's no big deal," said Dupont, who was cutting into a Smurfette cake while wearing a silver tiara and pink birthday pin. "Not for us, anyway."

Unlike Florida, New Orleans has dodged a direct hit from a major hurricane for four decades. But because the city sits in a bowl of land below sea level, it's dependent on levees and pumps to keep the water out. And the aquifer is so close to the surface that the dead must be buried above ground.

"I don't understand why we live here," Marisa Ledet, 25, a New Orleans native, said laughing. "I ask myself that question every August and September."

So a direct hit from Katrina could be devastating. A Category 4 hurricane could mean a storm surge of 18 to 22 feet washing over the levees, National Weather Service officials said. That would be topped by several feet more of waves that would be generated by winds greater than 131 mph.

"This is really scary," National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said. "We're seeing 12-foot seas along the Louisiana coast already."

Yet there was no hint of looming disaster in the air Saturday, which was sunny, with a high of 93 degrees. Jonathan Walsh, 33, described it as "a spectacular day, gorgeous, hot as can be. Other than the freakishly long lines at ATMs, gas stations and grocery stores, it's a normal day in New Orleans."

Walsh and his wife, Cathryn, planned to evacuate with their poodle, Morrissey, to a relative's home in Shreveport, La., in the northern part of the state - although they were hopeful New Orleans would be spared as it has so often in the past.

"Somebody said to me yesterday . . . that we pray harder here," Walsh said. "I would guarantee if you walked into St. Louis Cathedral tonight you would find a nice gaggle of people praying that this goes elsewhere."

New Orleans hasn't always been so fortunate. Forty years ago, when Hurricane Betsy roared ashore in Louisiana, flood waters approached 20 feet in some areas. The storm surge left almost half of New Orleans under water and 60,000 residents homeless. Seventy-four people died in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

But since then the city has dodged serious damage. "We've been blessed so far," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said. "Now it looks like we're going to have bear some of the brunt of this storm."

The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged people to heed evacuation orders, even though there have been a number of false alarms in the past.

"I'm very concerned about people in Mississippi and Louisiana who have watched these storms the past two years hit Florida and Alabama and may have a little lackadaisical attitude toward this thing," FEMA director Michael Brown said.

In the usually raucous French Quarter, the streets were not nearly as crowded or noisy as usual for a Saturday night. Still, at Brennan's Restaurant on Royal Street, about 250 patrons were dining on okra gumbo and shrimp sardou, polishing it off with bananas foster.

"This is New Orleans," said general manager Clark Brennan. "Everybody wants a hurricane party."

Still, many institutions announced they would close, and airlines canceled all flights. Tulane University canceled classes through Thursday and evacuated all dorms. The 1,700 new students arriving for orientation were told to go home.

And Tulane's student-run radio station, WTUL-FM - the oldest FM station in the city - shut down at 5 p.m., announcing on its Web site, "Dang hurricanes screwing up everything!"

"If y'all are evacuating, good luck," a student disc jockey said before playing one last song. "If y'all are planning on staying in to ride it out, take care."

Louisiana Department of Transportation cameras in downtown New Orleans showed traffic on Interstate 10 that looked like a workday rush hour - but all headed the same way. Louisiana and Mississippi made all lanes northbound on interstate highways.

In New Orleans lines at gas stations spilled onto nearby streets and stretched for blocks. The gas supply was running low by midafternoon Saturday.

"I was in line at the bank for an hour and have been waiting for gas for 30 minutes," said customer John Sullivan. "If it's anything like they say it's going to be, we don't want to be anywhere close to the city."

Some motels as far inland as Jackson, Miss., 150 miles north of New Orleans, were already booked up.

Not everyone can flee so easily, though.

"I know they're saying "Get out of town,' but I don't have any way to get out," said Hattie Johns, 74. "If you don't have no money, you can't go."

New Orleans officials estimated at least 100,000 people lack the transportation to get out of town. Mayor Nagin said the Superdome might be used as a shelter of last resort for people who have no cars, with city bus pickup points around New Orleans.

But he advised anyone planning to stay there to bring food, drinks and other comforts such as folding chairs. "No weapons, no large items, and bring small quantities of food for three or four days, to be safe," he said.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency and the director of his Emergency Management Agency, Robert Latham, urged coastal residents to not wait for evacuation orders.

"I realize that we have done this drill two or three times in the past few months, but we cannot take this storm lightly," Latham said.

But in Alabama, Mobile resident Eric Smith said he wasn't going to evacuate - he was going fishing. He thinks hurricanes make fish hungry.

"Right before it hits, fishing improves," said Smith, 21. "They know they have to hurry up and eat."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this story, which also includes information from the New Orleans Times Picayune, WWL-TV and the Associated Press.

[Last modified August 28, 2005, 01:15:11]

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