New Orleans Braces for Storm Surge

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Nearly one million people evacuate the northern Gulf coast as Hurricane Katrina arrives. New Orleans' mayor estimates 80 percent of the city's residents have fled the storm. But fears that the city's levee system will be overwhelmed are dissipating.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Hurricane Katrina is battering the Gulf Coast and is now swamping New Orleans. The huge storm has top sustained winds of more than 135 miles per hour and we're getting reports damage around the city, including a hole torn in the roof of the Superdome. More than one million people fled the approaching storm, but there are some people who have decided to stick it out.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen has been riding out this storm at a hotel in downtown New Orleans and he joins us once again.

Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: If that's the way to put it. What are conditions like at the hotel where you are?

ALLEN: Well, there's a temptation on the part of about everyone, including emergency officials to say the worst may be past. But we're still experiencing the tail end of it. The eye passed northeast of us toward Mississippi. What we're seeing right now is still driving rain, gusts of wind but nowhere near the heavy winds that we were receiving about an hour ago and we're hoping that we won't see that resume any time soon. The building I'm in, a high-rise, is still swaying some but nothing like it was. The power's out over most of New Orleans and the larger area. Authorities are telling people not to drink water. The water mains have been broken, so the water system is no longer considered safe. You have to boil it before drinking it.

INSKEEP: Greg, I think the last time we spoke, you mentioned that some windows had broken out in this hotel that you're in, which is very full of people fleeing the storm. How's everybody doing?

ALLEN: Well, in this hotel and others, the rooms, of course, are all full and also you have conference rooms, the ballrooms filled with people who wandered in and were given a place to stay. This hotel, the Hilton, is actually in pretty good shape comparatively. The Hyatt Hotel nearby had 100 windows break out, so that's frightening but no one was injured, we're told. It made their experience a little scarier over there. But even worse than that, we're hearing reports of an apartment building collapsed in Jefferson Parish and we're also getting reports, for people who stayed in their homes, of flooding, so there's been some people rescued already and there's more people calling for rescues right now.

INSKEEP: Yeah, we have reports of water up to the ceilings of some houses. What about there in the downtown area? If you go down to the ground floor of that hotel, is it underwater or not?

ALLEN: No. When I was down there a few minutes ago, I looked out and it just--what we're seeing is rain in the streets. We haven't seen flooding except for the rain, and the problem we have here now is that the pumps have failed in New Orleans. And at any time the pumps are needed to pump the rainwater out of this area, which is below sea level. So the rainwater's going to start piling up and then if we actually do see some storm surge action overtopping the levees, then things could still turn very badly here.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that there are people who decided to ride out the storm in their homes, who are now calling for help. As you listen to the emergency radio, do you get a sense as to whether the authorities are able to send help?

ALLEN: A lot of people evacuated, so I don't think there's as many people who stayed here as maybe many had feared. And the flooding is not widespread yet. There's still some isolated areas. So I'm hoping at least that they will be able to get to these people. People I've heard so far have been, you know, not in danger. They've been up on the second floor and they've had their first floors flooded, so they're starting to get a little nervous. But all in all, what I'm hearing from people is that they're taking this very calmly and, you know, a matter of course, if you can say that when your house has been flooded out.

INSKEEP: And finally, as you look out the window, are you able to see the levee and see how close the water is to the top of the levee?

ALLEN: It's hard to tell from here. You know, as you know, we're on the Mississippi River and I can't really see both the river and the levee here. There have been reports that the levee has breached in one area. I can't confirm that yet but right now the river looks a little higher, but I can't say that we're starting to see any noticeable storm surge. But that, of course, is still yet to come so we--might be a whole different story an hour from now.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Greg Allen in New Orleans. Greg, thanks for all your work this morning.

ALLEN: You're welcome, Steve.

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