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Monstrous Hurricane Katrina barreled toward the Big Easy on Sunday with 165-mph wind and a threat of a 28-foot storm surge, forcing a mandatory evacuation, a last-ditch Superdome shelter and prayers for those left to face the doomsday scenario this below-sea-level city has long dreaded.
"Have God on your side, definitely have God on your side," Nancy Noble said as she sat with her puppy and three friends in six lanes of one-way traffic on gridlocked Interstate 10. "It's very frightening."
Katrina intensified into a Category 5 giant over the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico on a path to make landfall at sunrise Monday in the heart of New Orleans. That would make it the city's first direct hit in 40 years and the most powerful storm ever to slam the city. It eased slightly during the day, with top sustained wind down from 175 mph, but forecasters said fluctuations were likely.
But forecasters warned that Mississippi was also in danger because Katrina was such a big storm — with hurricane-force winds extending up to 105 miles from the center — that even areas far from the landfall could be devastated.
"I'm really scared," New Orleans resident Linda Young said as she filled her gas tank. "I've been through hurricanes, but this one scares me. I think everybody needs to get out."
Showers began falling on southeastern Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast on Sunday afternoon, accompanied by pounding surf as far east as the Florida Panhandle, the first hints of a storm with a potential surge of 18 to 28 feet, even bigger waves and as much as 15 inches of rain.
"We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared," Mayor C. Ray Nagin said in ordering the mandatory evacuation for his city of 485,000 people, surrounded by suburbs of a million more. "The storm surge will most likely topple our levee system."
Conceding that as many as 100,000 inner-city residents didn't have the means to leave and an untold number of tourists were stranded by the closing of the airport, the city arranged buses to take people to 10 last-resort shelters, including the Superdome.
Nagin also dispatched police and firefighters to rouse people out with sirens and bullhorns, and even gave them the authority to commandeer vehicles to aid in the evacuation.
"This is very serious, of the highest nature," the mayor said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime event."
For years, forecasters have warned of the nightmare scenario a big storm could bring to New Orleans, a bowl of a city that's up to 10 feet below sea level in spots and dependent on a network of levees, canals and pumps to keep dry. It's built between the half-mile-wide Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, half the size of the state of Rhode Island.
Estimates have been made of tens of thousands of deaths from flooding that could overrun the levees and turn New Orleans into a 30-foot-deep toxic lake filled with chemicals and petroleum from refineries, and waste from ruined septic systems.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Katrina's eye was about 150 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. The storm was moving toward the northwest at nearly 13 mph and was expected to turn toward the north. A hurricane warning was in effect for the north-central Gulf Coast from Morgan City, La., to the Alabama-Florida line.
Despite the dire predictions, a group of residents in a poor neighborhood of central New Orleans sat on a porch with no car, no way out and, surprisingly, no fear.
"We're not evacuating," said 57-year-old Julie Paul. "None of us have any place to go. We're counting on the Superdome. That's our lifesaver."
The 70,000-seat Superdome, the home of football's Saints, opened at daybreak Sunday, giving first priority to frail, elderly people on walkers, some with oxygen tanks. They were told to bring enough food, water and medicine to last up to five days. By afternoon, people with bags of belongings lined up outside hoping to get in.
In the French Quarter, most bars that stayed open through the threat of past hurricanes were boarded up and the few people on the streets were battening down their businesses and getting out.
Sasha Gayer tried to get an Amtrak train out of town but couldn't. So she walked back to the French Quarter, buying supplies on the way, and then stopped at one of the few bars open on Bourbon Street.
"This is how you know it's a serious hurricane," she said. "You can't find a slice of white bread in the city, but you can still buy beer."
Airport Holiday Inn manager Joyce Tillis spent the morning calling her 140 guests to tell them about the evacuation order. Tillis, who lives inside the flood zone, also called her three daughters to tell them to get out.
"If I'm stuck, I'm stuck," Tillis said. "I'd rather save my second generation if I can."
But the evacuation was slow going. Highways in Louisiana and Mississippi were jammed as people headed away from Katrina's expected landfall. All lanes were limited to northbound traffic on Interstates 55 and 59, and westbound on I-10.
Evacuation orders were also posted all along the Mississippi coast, and the area's casinos, built on barges, were closed.
Alabama officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for low-lying coastal areas. Mobile Mayor Michael C. Dow said flooding could be worse than the 9-foot surge that soaked downtown during Hurricane Georges in 1998.
Residents of several barrier islands in the western Florida Panhandle were urged to evacuate as Katrina pushed several inches of water onto coastal roads and near homes.
Tourists stranded by the shutdown of New Orleans' Louis Armstrong Airport and the lack of rental cars packed the lobbies of high-rise hotels, which were exempt from the evacuation order to give people a place for "vertical evacuation."
Tina and Bryan Steven, of Forest Lake, Minn., sat glumly on the sidewalk outside their hotel in the French Quarter.
"We're choosing the best of two evils," said Bryan Steven. "It's either be stuck in the hotel or stuck on the road. ... We'll make it through it."
His wife, wearing a Bourbon Street T-shirt with a lewd message, interjected: "I just don't want to die in this shirt."
Only three Category 5 hurricanes — the highest on the Saffir-Simpson scale — have hit the United States since record-keeping began. The last was 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which at 165 mph leveled parts of South Florida, killed 43 people and caused $31 billion in damage.
New Orleans has not taken a major direct hit from a hurricane since Betsy in 1965, when an 8- to 10-foot storm surge submerged parts of the city in seven feet of water. Betsy, a Category 3 storm, was blamed for 74 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
National Hurricane Center deputy director Ed Rappaport warned that Katrina, already responsible for nine deaths in South Florida as a mere Category 1, could be far worse for New Orleans.
"It would be the strongest we've had in recorded history there," Rappaport said. "We're hoping of course there'll be a slight tapering off at least of the winds, but we can't plan on that. ... We're in for some trouble here no matter what."