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New Orleans Dodges the Bullet

August 26, 1992

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Instead of waking to disaster in their back yards, New Orleans residents who refused to flee Hurricane Andrew watched the storm’s Louisiana rampage on television.

Feared as the long-dreaded hurricane that would break levees and inundate the city with lake-deep water, Andrew drifted to the south before bending up into the central Louisiana coast.

Heavy rain and 50 mph winds did hit the New Orleans area. But the total impact was far below that of many summertime thunderstorms.

The New Orleans area reported about 100,000 customers without electricity, but work crews were quickly restoring service, said Bryan Giddings, the city’s emergency management director. There also was minor street flooding. No injuries or deaths were reported, Giddings said.

The danger came perilously close: One person died in tornadoes that swept through LaPlace, 12 miles across Lake Pontchartrain from the westernmost point of the metropolitan area.

Less than 24 hours after Andrew threatened the city, Mayor Sidney Barthelemy gave the all-clear for residents to return and said he hoped life would return to normal by Thursday.

The city is extremely vulnerable to a hurricane. The area is situated on a saucer-shaped flood plain guarded from flooding by a levee system. Visions of a hurricane moving up the Mississippi River, sending walls of water over the levees into populated areas, have long been a local nightmare.

Even more questions were raised about the area’s ability to evacuate more than 1 million residents. There are only three modern highways that connect the area with the rest of the world - and any could become impassable in bad weather.

Officials didn’t waste time once Andrew became a bona fide threat.

On Monday, Barthelemy said that New Orleans residents should leave. By Monday night, bumper-to-bumper traffic covered Interstate 55 for nearly 40 miles from New Orleans to the escape point of Hammond.

By the time the edge of Andrew brushed the city, streets were deserted and many residential neighborhoods and apartment complexes were ghost towns.

Giddings said the drill would help in future emergencies.

″We can’t get this kind of enthusiasm out of an exercise,″ he said. ″We did test ourselves. We found areas that we would like to improve. But we did a good job. ... Things worked out pretty close to the way we planned them.″

″I love dress rehearsals,″ said Robert Harvey, head of the Orleans Parish Levee Board. ″We prepare for the worst and accept what we get.″

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