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Georges Weakens Into Tropical Storm

September 28, 1998

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) _ Hurricane Georges plowed into the Gulf Coast on Monday and then parked there, weakening to a tropical storm but pouring rain at an inch-an-hour pace for what could be a long and ruinous stay.

Winds dropped to just over 69 mph, six mph below hurricane strength and down from a high of 110. New Orleans was spared the catastrophic direct hit that many in the Big Easy had feared.

But that was little comfort to the thousands who huddled in shelters from Florida to Louisiana and were expected to remain there for days. Outside, all was chaos _ trees ripped from the ground, windows sucked from their frames, floods roaring down roads.

``In some areas, there’s water to rooftops and 4 to 5 feet of water in many other homes. I’ve never seen anything like it in more than 50 years,″ said Jackson County administrator George Touart, after a tour of Pascagoula, where 15 inches of rain fell overnight.

Forecasters said up to 30 inches could fall by the time the storm clears out sometime in the middle of the week.

National Guardsmen waded through chest-deep water to carry children and lead adults to safety from a flooded housing project near downtown Mobile, Ala. In the Florida Panhandle, Guardsmen had to rescue about 200 people from their flooded homes.

A man in a wheelchair was rescued in Moss Point, Miss., by emergency workers who found him trapped in his home with floodwater up to his lap.

In New Orleans, where authorities had feared the worst _ a sopping rain and huge storm surge that would put the entire city under water _ there was a collective sigh of relief. Instead of hitting the Big Easy head on, Georges struck at Ocean Springs, Miss., between Biloxi and Pascagoula, dealing New Orleans rain and wind but no catastrophe.

``We, by taking the brunt at Ocean Springs, saved the city of New Orleans,″ said Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice. ``It was spared from the untellable misery that would have occurred.″

Two storm-related deaths were reported. A man died Monday in a New Orleans fire started by candles being used for light after the hurricane knocked out electricity. An 86-year-old woman died while she and 250 other nursing home residents waited for beds in a Baton Rouge shelter.

Earlier, in its odyssey across the Caribbean, Georges killed more than 300 people.

``We got off pretty lucky,″ said Derek Pociask, who was walking his dogs through a burst of rain on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. ``It’d be nice to have electricity, but I’m glad this has turned out to be just a bad rainstorm.″

More than 678,000 customers were without power across the Gulf Coast. As the storm moved in, more than 1.5 million people had been told to evacuate along the coast, and hotel rooms were hard to find as far away as Memphis, Tenn., and Dallas.

``Everybody’s been sleeping or everybody’s been watching the rain,″ said Becky Chamberlain, 15, at a Gulfport shelter. ``Mostly everybody has been waiting for this to go away and wondering when it’s going to be through.″

Nearly 14,700 people in Mississippi alone were staying in shelters, though their safety was not assured: The roof was ripped off a gymnasium at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Gautier, forcing the evacuation of 404 residents. Ninety others at Trent Lott Middle School in Pascagoula stayed put after the roof was damaged, apparently by a tornado.

In New Orleans, 10,000 spent the night in the Superdome.

Most evacuees were told to put off any plans to return to their homes because it was too dangerous.

``All I need to have is the name and address of their next of kin,″ said Jim Maher, director of Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency.

At 5 p.m. EDT, the hurricane’s center was sitting above Biloxi, Miss., moving northward at 3 mph. It was expected to drift inland, but slowly, exposing already saturated ground to unceasing rain.

Everywhere within 70 miles of the core of Georges bore the mark of the hurricane. Billboards along the interstates were ripped apart; streets were littered with the storm’s refuse.

At the downtown waterfront in Mobile, Ala., cars were half-submerged in the parking garage of the convention center.

Georges arrived with ``a howling sound that never quits,″ said Greg Myles, who stayed through the night with his wife, Sandra, and teen-age daughter, Ashley, in their house about 100 yards from the crashing waves of Mobile Bay.

Two trees fell in their yard and bay waters began rising toward them. But they made it through the night with the help of ``catnaps and a bottle of wine,″ Mrs. Myles said.

In Pensacola, Fla., the roof of a downtown building caved in. At Orange Beach, firefighter Todd Posey said there was heavy damage to beach property, with the storm surge carrying surf into the bottom floors of condominiums and homes on the beach.

In New Orleans, a 139-year-old restaurant, Bruning’s, collapsed into Lake Pontchartrain. Two planes at Lakefront Airport sat in water up to their wings.

Most of New Orleans sits 5 feet below sea level, and the city is protected by a network of levees and pumps.