New Orleans Begins to Feel Katrina's Impact

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Nearly one million people have evacuated the area in and around New Orleans. Authorities ordered them out fearing a massive storm surge that could inundate the city. Will the levees hold?

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 lashing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast this morning. The huge Category 4 storm has top sustained winds of more than 135 miles per hour. Weather experts fear a storm surge from Katrina could swamp the city, which is below sea level. About one million people have fled the approaching storm. We're gonna talk about the situation in New Orleans all this morning and also the strength of Katrina and the potential damage from her powerful winds and associated rain. First we go to New Orleans and NPR's John Burnett.

Good morning, John.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Describe for us at this hour what you are seeing and experiencing there in downtown New Orleans.

BURNETT: The Crescent City is still very much in the grip of this hurricane. As I look outside my window on the 21st story of the Hilton Hotel looking out over the Mississippi River, there are still white caps rolling down the river, there's debris flying through the air, foam, plastic, roofing material, some of it flying 30 stories high. Yet the air has cleared a little bit. We can now see the other side of the river. There's a sense that we may (technical difficulties).

MONTAGNE: And we seem to have lost John Burnett, who is in a hotel right in the middle of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but we have with us here in the studio NPR science correspondent Richard Harris to talk about the status of the storm.

And, Richard, give us the latest on where the storm is headed. We just heard a few moments of what it's doing in New Orleans.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

Yes. It's passing just east of New Orleans. New Orleans got a little bit lucky 'cause it could have been a direct hit, which would have been even a bigger disaster for that city. But it's heading east and it is an enormous storm. If--just the hurricane winds alone are 125 miles in every direction from the center of this storm, so it's cutting a very broad swath, and that's not even counting the tropical storm force winds which are also potentially devastating winds, and those are 230 miles in every direction from the center of this storm. So New Orleans has a lot to be worried about, but so does a lot of other stuff along the Gulf Coast. It's gonna create a very large storm surge and push a large amount of water onto the coast of Mississippi and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.

INSKEEP: Richard, people talk about this storm surge. That's not a couple hundred miles wide, right?

HARRIS: No, the winds are. The storm surge will--is all along the coast actually, so it could be. It's not necessarily 20 feet for that distance, but certainly anywhere along that Gulf Coast you're gonna find very high water and waves on top of that water.

INSKEEP: People have talked about maybe not 25- or 30-foot storm surge for the city of New Orleans, but a little bit less. Nevertheless, how damaging can that little bit less be, 10 or 15 feet?

HARRIS: It really depends where it gets hit, because if those hit the levees that are sort of on the seaward side, you'll probably be OK, 'cause those levees are high enough to take a fairly large storm surge. The problem is if you look around the back side where Lake Pontchartrain is, those levees aren't so big, and so if there's a storm surge on the lake itself, that could end up spilling over the levees and going into the city, and that would be a huge flooding.

MONTAGNE: And Lake Pontchartrain, just to tell people who aren't from there, that's right there just perched right there behind levees north of New Orleans.

HARRIS: Just north of New Orleans. That's right.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yes, indeed.

MONTAGNE: Very precarious sort of situation for New Orleans.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: You know, give us just a little geography lesson here, though. How widespread could the damage to the storm be? I mean, what states are we talking about? What regions?

HARRIS: Yeah, well, the entire Gulf Coast for starters is gonna bear the storm surge, which is the most damaging thing. When you think about it, a square foot or cubic foot of water weighs 64 pounds, and when you're talking about massive amounts of water, it's like a battering ram. So that's enormous. But the storm will then continue to move inland, and the winds are gonna be very high. They will gradually diminish as the storm moves off the coast, but those winds can--at 135 miles an hour, can knock down buildings and so on, and as the storm progresses north, the winds will diminish, but you're gonna get tremendous rainfall, five inches, 10 inches, 15 inches in some places, and there are flash floods that can result from that, and there are big flash flood warnings as a result of that. You can also have tornadoes out there, so that's another thing that people are concerned about.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thank you for joining us.

NPR's Richard Harris here in Washington, and we were joined by John Burnett down in New Orleans at the center of what is becoming--as the hurricane approaches New Orleans.

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