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Katrina Packing Wind of Nearly 175 Mph

Vehicles leave New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina. The Category 5 storm is expected to make landfall on Monday. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

Kate’s sister lives in Mississippi, a short drive from the coast, so they’ve evacuated into inland Alabama; it still looks like New Orleans is going receive the direct hit.

Mayor Ray Nagin ordered an immediate evacuation Sunday for all of New Orleans, a city sitting below sea level with 485,000 inhabitants, as Hurricane Katrina bore down with wind revved up to nearly 175 mph and a threat of a massive storm surge.

Acknowledging that large numbers of people, many of them stranded tourists, would be unable to leave before the eye of the storm strikes land sometime Monday morning, the city set up 10 places of last resort including the Superdome arena.

…”Katrina is comparable in intensity to Hurricane Camille of 1969 … only larger,” specialist Richard Pasch said at the hurricane center. “Hurricanes rarely sustain such extreme winds for much time. However we see no obvious large-scale effects to cause a substantial weakening the system and it is expected that the hurricane will be of Category 4 or 5 intensity when it reaches the coast.”

Storm surges of up to 28 feet topped by waves up to 30 feet were possible in some areas, hurricane center meteorologist Chris Sisko said. Camille has the record for storm surges at 24 feet. As much as 15 inches of rain also was possible.

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 leveled parts of South Florida, killed 43 people and caused $31 billion in damage. The others were the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys and killed 600 people and Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Mississippi coast in 1969, killing 256.

The hurricane’s landfall could still come in Mississippi and affect Alabama and Florida, but it looked likely to come ashore Monday morning on the southeastern Louisiana coast, said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the hurricane center in Miami. That put New Orleans squarely in the crosshairs.

“If it came ashore with the intensity it has now and went to the New Orleans area, it would be the strongest we’ve had in recorded history there,” Rappaport said in a telephone interview Sunday morning. “We’re hoping of course there’ll be a slight tapering off at least of the winds, but we can’t plan on that. So whichever area gets hit, this is going to be a once in a lifetime event for them.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding