Storm Thrashes Gulf Coast

Fire and rescue personnel launch a boat amid floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina as they try to reach a family outside a motel in Pascagoula, Miss. Storm surges of at least 20 feet were reported along the Mississippi coast.
Fire and rescue personnel launch a boat amid floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina as they try to reach a family outside a motel in Pascagoula, Miss. Storm surges of at least 20 feet were reported along the Mississippi coast. (Michael Spooneybarger - AP)

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By Peter Whoriskey and Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 29 -- Hurricane Katrina barreled into the Gulf Coast on Monday morning, its fierce winds cutting a 125-mile swath of destruction stretching from coastal Alabama across Mississippi to the French Quarter and the Superdome. At least 55 people were killed.

The storm's leading edge, wielding winds up to 145 mph across the Gulf of Mexico, made landfall as a fearsome Category 4 hurricane at 7:10 a.m. Eastern time near the Louisiana bayou town of Buras, about 63 miles southeast of New Orleans.

Katrina then wheeled into western Mississippi, bringing a 20-foot storm surge along the coast near Biloxi. It headed north later Monday to inundate most of the Mississippi Delta, spun off dozens of tornadoes through the South and promised drenching rains later in the week as far north as the Ohio Valley.

By late afternoon Monday the storm was downgraded to Category 1, with winds of 95 mph. But authorities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, forced to hunker down for most of the day, were only beginning to take stock of the damage.

"The high water is keeping us out of some areas, and the high winds are keeping our aircraft grounded," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) told reporters at a Baton Rouge news conference. She said she had "isolated reports of between four and six" fatalities, but nothing confirmed. Nonetheless, she said grimly, "we're worried."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) said Katrina struck his state "like a ton of bricks" and he feared "a lot of dead people down there" on the coast. "We know some people got trapped, and we pray they are okay," Barbour told reporters in Jackson.

In Mississippi's Harrison County, an emergency official confirmed 50 hurricane-related deaths Monday night, most at an apartment complex in Biloxi, the Associated Press reported.

President Bush pledged emergency aid to the afflicted states, and officials said he was likely to tap the 700 million-barrel petroleum stockpile to help Gulf Coast oil companies forced by Katrina to shut down.

"Our Gulf Coast is getting hit and hit hard," Bush said during a visit to El Mirage, Ariz. "I want the folks there on the Gulf Coast to know that the federal government is prepared to help you when the storm passes. . . . In the meantime, America will pray . . . for the health and safety of all our citizens."

New Orleans, with its combination of high population density and low-lying terrain, figured to be devastated by Katrina, and some experts predicted the storm could become one of the worst catastrophes in U.S. history.

But the city managed to avoid the worst of the worst. The Mississippi River did not breach New Orleans's famed levees to any serious degree, at least in part because Katrina veered 15 miles eastward of its predicted track just before landfall.

"We believe we were spared," said Jacquie Bauer, a spokesman for Jefferson Parish, La., which lies next to New Orleans. Still, she said, some rescue crews had come back saying "the damage was worse than anything they've seen before."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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