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Georges Slams into Gulf Coast, Forces Extensive Evacuations

By Claudia Kolker
Los Angeles Times
BILOXI, Miss.

Slowly but furiously, Hurricane Georges crawled across the tan sands of the Gulf Coast on Monday and lumbered into the state of Mississippi, causing at least two deaths, spreading destruction across hundreds of miles and driving out 1.5 million people in one of the biggest evacuations in hurricane history.

National Guard troops waded through chest-deep water to carry children to safety. More than 400 people fled shelter in a college gym when the wind demolished the roof. Waves as tall as houses clipped off fishing piers. A 200-foot microwave tower fell into a heap between two nearby buildings, and a 139-year-old restaurant collapsed into Lake Pontchartrain.

More than 1.5 million people were told to leave the coast from Florida to Louisiana. State police in Louisiana called it "probably the largest evacuation we have ever achieved."

At 5 p.m., the eye of the storm was virtually stalled above Biloxi. Winds of 110 mph had dropped to 69 mph, below hurricane strength, and Georges was moving northward at only 3 mph. The winds reached out for 70 miles in all directions. Rain poured down at an inch an hour, and forecasters said that up to 30 inches might fall by the time Georges wheezed out in midweek.

The two storm-related casualties were a man killed during a New Orleans fire started by candles being used for light, and an 86-year-old woman who died while she and 250 other nursing home residents waited for beds at a Baton Rouge shelter. Georges has caused more than 300 deaths since it formed in the Atlantic, most of them in the Caribbean.

Total damage ranged into the billions of dollars, much of it in Puerto Rico.

After clipping the Florida Keys and churning northwest across the Gulf of Mexico, Georges slammed ashore on the Gulf Coast during the early-morning hours just east of Biloxi. It knocked out power to more than 678,000 homes and businesses. Airports and interstate highways were closed, and curfews were imposed.

Wind gusting to 174 mph tore the roof off a community college gymnasium that sheltered 404 storm refugees in the town of Gautier, about 20 miles east of Biloxi. The people fled. Minutes later, the hurricane spawned a tornado that damaged the roof at Trent Lott Middle School in Pascagoula, two miles farther east.

They were trapped for a while, but no injuries were reported.

A torrent swept through a housing project near downtown Mobile, Ala. The water rose several feet above the heads of children. National Guard troops scooped them up and carried them out. The troops also led several adults to safety.

Along the Alabama coast and farther east on the Florida Panhandle, soaring waves cut piers in half. Troops were deployed along the panhandle, rescuing about 200 people from their flooded homes.

Forty miles north of the coast, in the small town of Wiggins, a tower carrying microwave transmissions for middle Alabama lost its footing. It hurtled downward and tumbled into a twisted pile, barely missing two buildings, one on either side.

At the western edge of the storm, the venerable Bruning's Restaurant fell into Lake Pontchartrain at the edge of New Orleans. But the Big Easy was spared. Most of the city sits five feet below sea level, and its residents had feared the worst.

Ten thousand people spent Sunday night in the Superdome.

By Monday afternoon, the force of the winds diminished to 74 mph, and Georges slowed to a crawl. But the storm extended up to 70 miles.

It pulled trees from the ground, sucked windows out of their frames and flattened billboards. Water covered roadways.

Eva Golson, director of the Welcome Center in Mobile, said her three-level brick and wood-siding home in West Mobile became a refuge for friends and neighbors.

Her daughter Carolyn moved in. She had been living alone in a low-lying area. Two friends from Dauphin Island, 30 miles south of town, moved in as well. So did two neighbors.

"It feels more comfortable to be with others," Golson said. "It feels safer, somehow."

Her husband, Bill, a charter captain for 15 years until he sold his boat last year, described much of the damage. "Any number of homes are flooded that never had water before," he said.

At Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Airman 1st Class Zakia Ray brought her 5-month-old son, Malachi, to work to protect him from the storm.

The Treasure Bay Casino, near Biloxi, built to resemble a pirate ship, broke away from its primary mooring - designed to give way when winds reached 70 mph. But the casino stayed put, held tightly by its secondary mooring: 3-inch chains tied to 60-inch pipes driven into the sea floor and filled with concrete.

The casino and nine others along the Mississippi coast had been closed Friday night by the state Gaming Commission. A preliminary assessment showed little damage, but Chuck Potter, executive director of the commission, said it would be Wednesday or Thursday before they would reopen.