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As Hurricane Katrina Nears, Residents Flee New Orleans<P>By Joseph B. Treaster 

As Hurricane Katrina Nears, Residents Flee New Orleans

By Joseph B. Treaster 
and Abby Goodnough


Hurricane Katrina, one of the most powerful storms ever to threaten the United States, bore down on the Gulf Coast on Sunday, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the approach of its 175 mph winds and prompting a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, a city perilously below sea level.

“We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared,” said Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans, who issued the order to evacuate. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

The hurricane’s eye was expected to make landfall around daybreak on Monday in southeastern Louisiana — possibly squarely in New Orleans.

The low-lying city has avoided a direct hit from a powerful storm since Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In addition to the dangerous winds, Nagin said, Hurricane Katrina could bring 15 inches of rain and a storm surge of 20 feet or higher that would “most likely topple” the network of levees and canals that normally protect the bowl-shaped city from flooding.

That possibility was enough for many of the city’s 485,000 residents to heed the mayor’s call to leave, paralyzing traffic along major highways from just after daybreak and into the evening.

“I probably won’t have a house when I go back,” Tanya Courtney, 25, who lives in the city’s French Quarter, said Sunday in Gulfport, Miss., where she and a group of friends bound for Atlanta stopped for a rest.

Many others in New Orleans, including stranded tourists, stayed behind, with as many as 10,000 of them crowding into the Superdome arena, which the city designated as a shelter of last resort.

People five and six abreast waited in line for hours to get into the arena, clutching children, blankets and pillows, oversize pieces of luggage or plastic bags filled with belongings.

“When you are on a holiday you don’t really follow these kind of things,” Neil Coffey, 35, a tourist from Britain, said as he stood in line with a group of other tourists to get into the Superdome. “We were surprised. We don’t get hurricanes like this at home.”

Ernest Paulin Jr., a 55-year-old unemployed welder from New Orleans, said he looked around his three-bedroom, wood-frame house where he has lived alone since the death of his wife last year and decided to head for the Superdome.

“I just didn’t want to take a chance,” said Paulin, who like many arrived with hastily-packed possessions. He was carrying a small plastic bag containing his eyeglasses, medication and a paperback book, a Tony Hillerman novel, “The First Eagle.”

After crossing South Florida late last week, killing nine people as a weaker storm, Hurricane Katrina intensified over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, growing early Sunday morning into a Category 5 storm, the strongest step on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Since records have been kept, there have only been three Category 5 storms to hit the United States — Hurricane Andrew, which ravaged Florida and Louisiana in 1992; Hurricane Camille, which cut a path through parts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia in 1969; and an unnamed storm that hit the Florida Keys in 1935.