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Hurricane Katrina Hits Gulf Coast, Leaving Dozens Dead<P>By Joseph B. Treaster

Hurricane Katrina Hits Gulf

Coast, Leaving Dozens Dead

By Joseph B. Treaster
and N. R. Kleinfield


A day after New Orleans thought it had narrowly escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, water broke through two levees on Tuesday and virtually submerged and isolated the city, causing incalculable destruction and rendering it uninhabitable for weeks to come.

With bridges washed out, highways converted into canals and power and communications lines left inoperable, government officials ordered everyone still remaining out of the city and began planning for the evacuation of the Superdome where about 10,000 refugees huddled in increasingly grim conditions, running out of water and food and with rising waters threatening the generators.

So dire was the situation that the Pentagon late in the day ordered six Navy ships and eight Navy maritime rescue teams to the Gulf Coast to bolster relief operations. It also planned to fly in Swift boat rescue teams from California. With the rising waters and widespread devastation hobbling rescue and recovery efforts, authorities could only guess at the death toll in the city and across the Gulf Coast. In Mississippi alone, officials raised the official count of the dead to at least 100.

“It looks like Hiroshima is what it looks like,” Gov. Haley Barbour said, describing portions of Mississippi’s Harrison County. Across the region rescue workers were not even trying to gather up and count the dead, officials said, but pushed them aside for the time being as they struggled to find the living.

As the sweep of the devastation became clear on Tuesday, President Bush cut short his monthlong summer vacation and returned to Washington, where he will meet Wednesday with a task force established to coordinate the efforts of 14 federal agencies that will be involved in responding to the disaster.

The scope of the catastrophe caught the city by surprise. A certain sense of relief that was felt on Monday afternoon, after the eye of the storm swept east of New Orleans, proved cruelly illusory, as authorities and residents woke up Tuesday to a more horrifying result than had been anticipated. Ray Nagin, the city’s mayor, lamented that the city had dodged the worst-case scenario on Monday when Katrina made landfall east of the city, but that Tuesday “is the second-worst-case scenario.”

It was not the water from the sky but the water that broke through the city’s protective barriers that changed everything for the worse in New Orleans. The city, with a population of nearly 500,000, is protected from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain by levees. North of downtown New Orleans, breaches in the levees sent the muddy waters of Lake Pontchartrain pouring into the city.

Streets that were essentially dry in the hours immediately following the hurricane were several feet deep in water on Tuesday morning. Even downtown areas that lie on higher ground were flooded.

Nagin said that one breach was two to three blocks long, and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was dropping 3,000-pound sandbags into the opening from helicopters, as well as sea-land containers filled with sand, to try to halt the water.