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The South Begins Cleanup of Damage from Andrew

By David Maraniss
The Washington Post

MORGAN CITY, La.

The fierce storm known as Andrew dragged slowly across Louisiana toward Mississippi Wednesday, flattening hundreds of homes, spawning tornadoes and drenching a wide swath of lowlands with torrential rain. But as it diminished from hurricane force into a tropical storm, Andrew appeared to have spared the Gulf Coast from the magnitude of death and catastrophic damage dealt earlier to South Florida.

Louisiana officials reported two hurricane-related deaths and 75 injuries, compared with 19 deaths and hundreds of injuries caused by Andrew's first punches across the Bahamas and the Florida peninsula.

A greater tragedy was averted here, officials said, because the hurricane dawdled while humans in its path did not. Louisianans' familiarity with killer hurricanes, and graphic pictures of Andrew's punishment of the Miami region, prompted most residents to evacuate the danger zone or find shelter before the storm began its slow and dissipating movement inland.

"Given what could have happened, I suppose we should be thankful," Gov. Edwin W. Edwards (D) said during an interview with WWL radio in New Orleans.

By early afternoon, Andrew's sustained winds had fallen below hurricane level of 74 mph. Wednesday evening, the storm continued to drench the region while its strength waned further and it moved toward the Mississippi border near Natchez.

President Bush flew to Lafayette Wednesday afternoon, just as he had visited Miami Monday, and again promised a full-bore federal effort to help local residents recover from the natural disaster. While buildings and cropland in Louisiana suffered extensive damage, state officials said they did not expect costs here to be nearly as high as preliminary damage estimates of $15 billion to $20 billion in south Florida.

"My heart goes out to the people of the southern parishes," Bush said after his brief tour with Edwards, who was decked out in a National Guard uniform.

The worst damage in Louisiana was reported along the Atchafalaya River basin in the south-central part of the state, from Morgan City to New Iberia and northwest to Lafayette. Along with hundreds of homes and businesses leveled by high winds and fallen trees, miles of croplands where sugar cane was nearing harvest also were decimated. Highways along that route were littered with fallen trees, telephone polls and giant shards of metal road signs.

"I've been here for 35 years, and I've never seen anything like this," Morgan City Police Chief Daniel Dossett said. "I was here for Hurricane Betsy (in 1965), and it was impressive, but I don't remember being quite so impressed with it as I was by Andrew. It was frustrating for me because all we could do was sit here and wait it out right here damn close to the eye of the storm."

Dossett said National Guard troops were headed toward Morgan City tonight to help the police guard against looting. There had been no reports of looting anywhere in the state.

Authorities gave conflicting reports on the extent of damage to coastline areas that, as of early Wednesday night, had not yet been surveyed by emergency-management officials. Some unofficial reports said that, while wind and rain damage was extensive, there were few injuries. Neil Young, in charge of Red Cross disaster relief for Terrebonne Parish, said hundreds of families were stranded or homeless in bayou lands south of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The two reported deaths in the state were only indirectly caused by the hurricane, authorities said. One man died of a heart attack at a shelter in Iberia Parish, while another was found dead in rubble of his home after a tornado whipped through La Place near the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

La Place was one of the most heavily damaged areas in Louisiana. One tornado touched down there seven times Tuesday night and this morning, injuring at least 33 residents, including a girl, 2, reported in serious condition, and leveling dozens of homes and trailers. At least one and perhaps two other tornadoes struck the area this morning, officials said.