City is damaged, damp - and lucky

New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina

August 30, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane Katrina's torrential rain pushed floodwater to the eaves of homes, forcing residents to their roofs in search of rescue. Its 100-mph winds punched out hundreds of windows, ripped trees from the ground, toppled masonry and ripped slices of roof from the city's Superdome.

"It was devastating," said Ron Forman, president of the group that oversees the city's aquarium and zoo. "And even with that, it could have been worse."

Rescue workers expected, when dawn broke today, to begin finding bodies among the city's flooded neighborhoods. But the loss of life will be nowhere near the thousands of deaths forecast had Katrina hit New Orleans head on.

First the Category 5 storm weakened to Category 4 before coming ashore. And when it did, it hit east of New Orleans, striking the city a glancing blow. For that, battered residents of the Big Easy expressed gratitude as they slowly began venturing back into the streets late yesterday.

Police patrolled for looters as the storm was winding down. Once it was over, Canal Street - a strip of hotels, fast food restaurants and tourist shops just outside the French Quarter - began to fill with people taking photos of what Katrina had left behind and strolling amid the debris.

C.J. DeVoe and Bibiana Pereira ventured outside in the Biwater neighborhood, where they found the glass front of a friend's carpentry shop shattered. Unable to reach their friend, and fearing looters, they covered the shop window with plywood for him.

"People get in here, and it's his livelihood," DeVoe said.

John and Dee Dillman and their son Eoghan headed out after the storm into their neighborhood of Faubourg Marigny, a quaint residential area of pink, blue and green houses. There they found trees lying in the streets and the roof torn off one building.

But the damage was "mostly superficial," John Dillman said. "I think mostly it's fortunate that we didn't have worse than we did."

The same attitude prevailed at Tulane University, where the water was calf-high out front. "It's not that bad," said Elex Hosley, who works in housekeeping at the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine Building. "We just got a power outage and water. We did extremely well."

An estimated 10,000 of the city's residents - many too poor or too ill to heed the call to evacuate - waited out the storm inside the Superdome, home to New Orleans' football team, the Saints. At their howling height, Katrina's winds tore strips from the dome's lining, allowing water to pour inside. But the structure was never in danger, and those huddled inside moved to drier areas of the building.

By yesterday afternoon, as the storm abated, some of those who had sought the building's protection were "aggravated, trying to leave," said Lt. Gregory Briant of the Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff's Department.

But with uncertainty about whether the residents had homes to return to, officials kept everyone inside.

Forman, president and chief executive of the Audubon Nature Institute, was happy his charges stayed inside. He oversees the Audubon Zoo, the aquarium and other facilities, which he said fared well in the storm.

A few flamingos died, but he said there was little other loss of animal life.

Life returned to the French Quarter quickly, as tourists and city residents came back to the streets to gawk and check on landmarks.

Some streets were impassable because of uprooted trees. Others were clogged with bricks from crumbling facades, fallen roof slates and shards of red clay plant holders that had tumbled off the balconies of historic townhouses.

As in happier times, Mardi Gras beads were strewn everywhere, caught up in twisted pieces off fallen balconies and tangled in the debris from fallen tree limbs.

Winds wrested the cooper roof from the Old U.S. Mint on the eastern edge of the French Quarter and tossed the metal across several nearby streets. But the historic St. Louis Cathedral was spared any apparent damage. A magnolia tree and an oak felled by Katrina's winds landed in the cathedral's back courtyard - but missed the church and a white marble statue of Jesus with outstretched arms.

Katrina's high winds and water yesterday pummeled the hundreds of ships and barges tied up along New Orleans' waterfront - one of the nation's largest port complexes.

"There are ships that are dragging anchor and barges that are breaking loose. Even the Coast Guard has evacuated their station here," said Allen Baker, 39, of Roland Park, a mate aboard the oceangoing tugboat Joan Moran.

The tug arrived in New Orleans on Friday after towing a 430-foot coal barge from Jacksonville, Fla. just ahead of the storm.

Unable to load 15,000 tons of coal with the storm approaching, Baker and his crew spent the storm's worst hours working to prevent an accident as 100-mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge pulled at the empty barge.

"We're doing fine," he said. "The tug's buttoned up; all the gear's been removed off the decks, so there's nothing flying through the air."

"I have been through hurricanes, but nothing like this," he said. "This is a lot more intense. This one definitely felt different."

He remained in touch with loved ones with his cell phone. "I actually talked to my mom last night, and texted my lady friend," he said. "We're all very surprised we have any phone reception."

Sun staff writer Frank Roylance contributed to this article.

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