HoustonChronicle.com - Katrina unleashes its fury on New Orleans, Mississippi

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Katrina plowed into this below-sea-level city today with shrieking, 145-mph winds and blinding rain that submerged entire neighborhoods up to the rooflines and peeled away part of the Superdome, where thousands of people had taken shelter. The storm unleashed more chaos as it moved into Mississippi, hurling boats into buildings and ripping billboards to shreds.

Katrina weakened overnight to a Category 4 storm and made a slight turn to the right before hitting land at 6:10 a.m. CDT near the bayou town of Buras. It passed just to the east of New Orleans as it moved inland and dropped to a 105-mph Category 2 storm, sparing this vulnerable city its full fury.

The storm threatened to dump as much as 15 inches of rain on the Gulf Coast. Katrina recorded a gigantic 22-foot storm surge in Mississippi, where windows of a major hospital were blown out, utility poles dangled in the wind, and at least one casino was partially flooded. In Alabama, exploding transformers lit up the early morning sky as power outages spread.

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield warned that New Orleans would be pounded throughout the day and that Katrina's potential 15-foot storm surge, down from a feared 28 feet, was still enough to cause extensive flooding.

"I'm not doing too good right now," Chris Robinson said via cellphone from his home east of the city's downtown. "The water's rising pretty fast. I got a hammer and an ax and a crowbar, but I'm holding off on breaking through the roof until the last minute. Tell someone to come get me please. I want to live."

On the south shore of Lake Ponchartrain, entire neighborhoods of one-story, shotgun-style homes were flooded up to the rooflines. The Interstate 10 off-ramps nearby looked like boat ramps amid the whitecapped waves. Garbage cans and tires bobbed in the water.

Two people were stranded on a roof as murky water lapped at the gutters.

"Get us a boat!" a man in a black slicker shouted over the howling winds.

Across the street, a woman leaned from the second-story window of a brick home and shouted for assistance.

"There are three kids in here," the woman said. "Can you help us?"

Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, the storm flung boats onto land in Mississippi, lashed street lamps and flooded roads in Alabama, and swamped highway bridges in the Florida Panhandle. At least a half-million people were without power from Louisiana to Florida's Panhandle, including 370,000 in southeastern Louisiana and 116,400 in Alabama, mostly in the Mobile area.

At New Orleans' Superdome, home to 9,000 storm refugees, the wind ripped pieces of metal from the golden roof, leaving two holes that let water drip in. People inside were moved out of the way. Others stayed and watched as sheets of metal flapped and rumbled loudly 19 stories above the floor.

Building manager Doug Thornton said the larger hole was 15 to 20 feet long and four to five feet wide. Outside, one of the 10-foot, concrete clock pylons set up around the Superdome blew over.

Elsewhere in the city, the storm shattered scores of windows in high-rise office buildings and on five floors of the Charity Hospital, forcing patients to be moved to lower levels. At the Windsor Court Hotel, guests were told to go into the interior hallways with blankets and pillows and to keep the doors to the rooms closed to avoid flying glass.

In suburban Jefferson Parish, Sheriff Harry Lee said residents of a building on the west bank of the Mississippi River called 911 to say the building had collapsed and people might be trapped. He said deputies were not immediately able to check out the building because their vehicles were unable to reach the scene.

At noon CDT, Katrina was centered moving to the north at 17 mph.

Katrina was a terrifying, 175-mph Category 5 behemoth — the most powerful category on the scale — before weakening.

HoustonChronicle.com - Katrina unleashes its fury on New Orleans, Mississippi


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