NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Katrina plowed into the Gulf Coast at daybreak Monday with shrieking, 145-mph winds and blinding rain, submerging entire neighborhoods up to the rooflines in New Orleans, hurling boats onto land and sending water pouring into Mississippi's strip of beachfront casinos.
At least two highways deaths in Alabama were blamed on the storm, and an untold number of others were feared dead in flooded neighborhoods.
"Some of them, it was their last night on earth," Terry Ebbert, chief of homeland security for New Orleans, said of people who ignored evacuation orders. "That's a hard way to learn a lesson."
Katrina weakened overnight to a Category 4 storm and made a slight turn to the right before coming ashore at 6:10 a.m. CDT near the Louisiana bayou town of Buras. The storm passed just to the east of New Orleans as it moved inland, sparing this vulnerable below-sea-level city its full fury and the apocalyptic damage that forecasters had feared.
But there was plenty of destruction in New Orleans, and a clearer picture of the damage emerged after the storm had passed: Mangled street signs, crumbled brick walls in the French Quarter, fallen trees on streetcar tracks, highrises with almost all of their windows blown out. White curtains that were sucked out of the shattered windows of a hotel became tangled in treetops.
An estimated 40,000 homes flooded in St. Bernard Parish just east of New Orleans.
Katrina recorded a storm surge of more than 20 feet in Mississippi, where windows of a major hospital were blown out and billboards were ripped to shreds. In some areas, authorities pulled stranded homeowners from roofs or rescued them from attics. In Alabama, exploding transformers lit up the early morning sky and muddy, 6-foot waves engulfed stately, million-dollar homes along Mobile Bay's normally tranquil waterfront.
"Let me tell you something folks: I've been out there. It's complete devastation," said Gulfport, Miss., Fire Chief Pat Sullivan.
Emergency officials had not been able to reach some of the hardest-hit areas to determine the number of injuries or deaths. Officials across the region sent water rescue teams out and stood ready to dispense ice, water and meals to hurricane-stricken residents.
"We know some people got trapped and we pray they are OK," Gov. Haley Barbour said.
At 3 p.m. EDT, a rapidly weakening Katrina was centered about 20 miles southwest of Hattiesburg, Miss., moving northward at about 19 mph. Its winds had dropped to about 95 mph, making it a Category 1 storm.
Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the hurricane center, estimated that the highest winds in New Orleans were about 100 mph. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said her office had reports of as many 20 building collapses in New Orleans, and scores of residents stranded in attics or on rooftops.
"I'm not doing too good right now," Chris Robinson said via cellphone from his home east of the city's downtown. "The water's rising pretty fast. I got a hammer and an ax and a crowbar, but I'm holding off on breaking through the roof until the last minute. Tell someone to come get me please. I want to live."
On the south shore of Lake Ponchartrain, entire neighborhoods of one-story homes were flooded up to the rooflines. The Interstate 10 off-ramps nearby looked like boat ramps amid the whitecapped waves. Garbage cans and tires bobbed in the water.
Two people were stranded on the roof as murky water lapped at the gutters.
"Get us a boat!" a man in a black slicker shouted over the howling winds.
Across the street, a woman leaned from the second-story window of a brick home and shouted for assistance.
"There are three kids in here," the woman said. "Can you help us?"
At least a half-million people were without power from Louisiana to Florida's Panhandle, including 370,000 in southeastern Louisiana and well over 100,000 each in Alabama and Mississippi.
At New Orleans' Superdome, home to 9,000 storm refugees, the wind ripped pieces of metal from the roof, leaving two holes that let water drip in. People inside were moved out of the way. Others stayed and watched as sheets of metal flapped and rumbled loudly 19 stories above the floor. Outside, one of the 10-foot, concrete clock pylons set up around the Superdome blew over.
At the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, guests were told to go into the interior hallways with blankets and pillows and to keep the doors to the rooms closed to avoid flying glass.
In Alabama's Mobile Bay, Fred Wright's whole yard was flooded and muddy waves were hitting the back of his home. Wright, shirtless and wearing shorts, spoke of the high-dollar real estate on the waterfront: "There are lots of homes through here worth a million dollars. At least they were yesterday."
By midday, the brunt of the storm had moved beyond New Orleans to Mississippi's coast, home to the state's floating casinos, where Katrina washed sailboats onto a coastal four-lane highway. The Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino, one of the premier gambling spots in Biloxi, had water on the first floor, and the governor said other casinos were flooded as well.
Katrina was the most powerful storm to affect Mississippi since Hurricane Camille came in as a Category 5 in 1969, killing 256 people in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"This is a devastating hit — we've got boats that have gone into buildings," said Sullivan, the Gulfport fire chief. "What you're looking at is Camille II."
In New Orleans' historic French Quarter of Napoleonic-era buildings with wrought-iron balconies, water pooled in the streets from the driving rain, but the area appeared to have escaped the catastrophic flooding that forecasters had predicted.
On Jackson Square, two massive oak trees outside the 278-year-old St. Louis Cathedral came out by the roots, ripping out a 30-foot section of ornamental iron fence and straddling a marble statue of Jesus Christ, snapping off only the thumb and forefinger of his outstretched hand.
At the hotel Le Richelieu, the winds blew open sets of balcony French doors shortly after dawn. Seventy-three-year-old Josephine Elow of New Orleans pressed her weight against the broken doors as a hotel employee tried to secure them.
"It's not life-threatening," Mrs. Elow said as rain water dripped from her face. "God's got our back."
For years, forecasters have warned of the nightmare scenario a big storm could bring to New Orleans, a bowl of a city that is up to 10 feet below sea level in spots and relies on a network of levees, canals and pumps to keep dry from the Mississippi River on one side, Lake Pontchartrain on the other.
The fear was that flooding could overrun the levees and turn New Orleans into a toxic lake filled with chemicals and petroleum from refineries, as well as waste from ruined septic systems.
Officials said a levee broke on one canal, but did not appear to cause major problems.
Blanco took little comfort in the fact that the hurricane may have spared New Orleans much worse flooding, given the still uncertain toll in surrounding parishes.
"I can't say that I feel that sense that we've escaped the worst," she said. "I think we don't know what the worst is right now."
Crude oil futures spiked to more than $70 a barrel in Singapore for the first time Monday as Katrina targeted an area crucial to the country's energy infrastructure, but the price had slipped back to $68.95 by midday in Europe. The approaching storm forced the shutdown of an estimated 1 million barrels of refining capacity.
Authorities closed a major bridge over the Mobile River in Alabama after it was struck by a runaway oil drilling platform.
Calling it a once-in-a-lifetime storm, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had ordered a mandatory evacuation over the weekend for the 480,000 residents of the vulnerable city, and he estimated about 80 percent heeded the call.
The evacuation itself claimed lives. Three New Orleans nursing home residents died Sunday after being taken by bus to a Baton Rouge church. Officials said the cause was probably dehydration.
National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said the forecast track issued Friday night was only 15 miles off from where the storm actually hit.
"If that is not a superb forecast, I don't know what is," he said.
New Orleans has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane since Betsy in 1965, when an 8- to 10-foot storm surge submerged parts of the city in seven feet of water. Betsy, a Category 3 storm, was blamed for 74 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
Katrina hit the southern tip of Florida as a much weaker storm Thursday and was blamed for 11 deaths. It left miles of streets and homes flooded and knocked out power to 1.45 million customers. It was the sixth hurricane to hit Florida in just over a year.
Associated Press reporters Mary Foster, Holbrook Mohr, Brett Martel and Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: www.nhc.noaa.gov