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New Orleans Braces for Georges

September 27, 1998

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ About 1.5 million people were urged or ordered to leave the city and coastal parishes Saturday as Hurricane Georges plowed across the Gulf of Mexico with flooding rain and wind over 100 mph.

``We’ve got to get out of here. We’re a prime target,″ said Jeffrey Smith, near the end of a line of 40 shopping carts waiting to check out with plywood at a Home Depot store.

Before he left, he was going to board up two windows on his house and 10 on a house he rents. ``Got to take care of my investment.″

A hurricane warning was posted for the Gulf Coast from Morgan City, 80 miles west of New Orleans, to Panama City, Fla., 225 miles to the east. The National Hurricane Center said the center of the storm could hit the Louisiana coast late Sunday or early Monday.

``This is kind of like looking down the barrel of a shotgun and hoping it turns,″ said Louisiana State Police Lt. Col. Ronnie Jones.

Traffic leaving New Orleans was bumper to bumper Saturday and state police called in 175 off-duty troopers to keep it moving. An additional 250 National Guard troops and state police were ordered to help with patrols and along evacuation routes elsewhere throughout south Louisiana, Jones said.

Georges was the most serious storm to threaten New Orleans since 1969, when Camille slammed into the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, causing flooding as far north as Virginia and West Virginia and killing 259 people.

Much of New Orleans is below sea level, and the city is bordered by swamps, lakes and the Mississippi River. And while it’s 75 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, a strong storm surge could push water into the lakes north of the city and cause widespread flooding. The city is protected by levees and powerful pumps that suck storm water from streets and send it into drainage canals.

Jefferson Parish President Tim Coulon ordered people out of the lowest parts of his parish, home to 450,000 people just east of New Orleans, and urged others to join the exodus voluntarily.

Also under mandatory evacuation orders were all 40,000 residents of St. Charles Parish, 85,000 rural residents of Terrebonne Parish, and people in low-lying parts of Lafourche, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes.

The 1,500 residents of Grand Isle were ordered out of their homes for the fourth time in four weeks. Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, rises just 5 feet above sea level and high water cuts off the single road to the mainland even before the island itself floods.

Mayor Marc Morial ordered 2,000 New Orleans residents living outside hurricane protection levees to leave their homes, and urged the rest of the city’s 450,000 residents to leave if they have a safe place to stay.

The remaining 500,000 people asked or forced to leave their homes live in a 1,500 square mile area stretching from the southeast tip of Louisiana to Morgan City in St. Mary Parish.

Evacuating all New Orleans residents would take three days because Interstate 10 and U.S. 90 are the only ways out of the city, which is fringed by swamps, bounded by a lake and split by the Mississippi River.

Construction work clogs much of the route and parts of U.S. 90 already were flooded by 6 inches of water from previous storms.

``Considering that we have nearly a million people in the region and limited evacuation, there’s no way we can enforce a mandatory evacuation,″ Coulon said.

Hal Bigelow, 48, was planning to stay _ with 18 to 20 relatives likely to shelter in his two-story house a levee in suburban Chalmette.

But he also gassed up his 19-foot motorboat and tied it to the roof of his carport.

``If the levee does break, at least I got a way to ride it out,″ he said.

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