NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Rita's wind-driven storm surge topped one of New Orleans' battered levees and poked holes in another Friday, sending water gushing into already-devastated neighborhoods just days after they had been pumped dry.
An initial surge of water cascaded over a patched levee protecting the impoverished Ninth Ward, flooding the abandoned neighborhood with at least 6 feet of water.
"Our worst fears came true," said Maj. Barry Guidry, a National Guardsman on duty at the broken levee.
Leaks beneath another levee that was repaired with rock and gravel after Hurricane Katrina flooded homes with at least a half-foot of water. Meanwhile, wind-whipped waves pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain over a seawall, and rain runoff with no outlet pooled in city streets.
The rain in New Orleans was expected to continue throughout the night, but meteorologists were already turning their attention west to the communities in the storm's cross hairs such as Lake Charles and Cameron.
"I know we're all concerned about New Orleans, but I'm more focused on these other communities right now," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "That's where people are going to die."
Evacuees from the misery-stricken city learned of the new flooding with despair.
"It's like looking at a murder," Quentrell Jefferson of the Ninth Ward said as he watched the news at a church in Lafayette, 125 miles west of New Orleans. "The first time is bad. After that, you numb up."
The flooding came as Rita began lashing the Gulf Coast with rain and wind, and up to 500,000 people in southwestern Louisiana headed north. Some who fought hours of gridlock to get out of Texas were frustrated to find they had to keep going to stay out of the storm, which was expected to make landfall early Saturday.
Late Friday, southwestern Louisiana was soaked by the storm's outer bands. Ranches and marshlands were under water in coastal Cameron Parish. Empty coastal highways and small towns were blasted with wind-swept rain.
Lake Charles, not far from Rita's predicted path along the Texas-Louisiana line, was a virtual ghost town. Before nightfall, squalls were flattening sugar cane fields and knocking over trees near New Iberia, about 110 miles west of New Orleans.
There were fears the storm would stall after coming ashore, dumping as much as 25 inches of rain over the next several days.
In New Orleans, water poured through gaps in the Industrial Canal levee, which engineers had tried to repair after Katrina's floodwaters left 80 percent of the city under water. The rushing water covered piles of rubble and mud-caked cars in the Ninth Ward, rising swiftly to the top of first-floor windows. It spilled east into St. Bernard Parish, where ducks swam down Judge Perez Drive.
The storm surge was both stronger and earlier than expected, apparently coming through waterways southeast of the city, said Col. Richard Wagenaar, the Army Corps of Engineers' district chief in New Orleans. Water poured over piles of gravel and sandbags in the damaged Industrial Canal levee despite efforts to build it up.
"We believed the 8-foot elevation was sufficient" to protect the Ninth Ward, Wagenaar said.
Farther north, water 6 to 8 inches deep was streaming into homes south of Lake Pontchartrain, spouting from beneath two gravel-and-rock patches on the London Avenue Canal levee. Corps engineers said they expected the leaks.
"It's a rock levee," said Richard Pinner, who is supervising the levee's repair for the corps.
Officials with the corps said other levees around the city appeared secure. The problems would set back repairs at least three weeks, Wagenaar said, but June is still the target for getting the levees back to pre-Katrina strength.
More rain could put the patched levees at more risk. An added fear was that another strong storm surge would push water through the walls in other places. Still, the city may have escaped worse damage because it was not in the direct path of Hurricane Rita, said Tim Destri of the National Weather Service in Slidell.
"It's a combination of wind-driven water and tides," he said. "It's not the sudden storm surge of the hurricane."
The water level in Lake Ponchartrain likely will not rise much more but will remain high enough to pose a continued danger to the "flimsy" repairs, said Paul Kemp, a storm-surge expert at Louisiana State University.
The additional flooding brought by Hurricane Rita also would complicate the search for the dead left by Hurricane Katrina.
"It's going to make it a lot tougher," said Richard Dier, a FEMA group supervisor who oversees hundreds of people searching for bodies. "We'd like to start where we left off, but my men don't submerge or go into houses with deep water. It makes searching almost impossible..."
The search-and-recovery effort was called off Friday morning as the storm approached. On Friday, Katrina's death toll stood at 841 in Louisiana and 1,078 across the Gulf Coast.
A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for the part of New Orleans on the east bank of the Mississippi River, including the Ninth Ward. A spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin said officials believed the neighborhood had been cleared of residents.
Mark Madary, a St. Bernard Parish councilman, said houses that were under 12 feet of water after Katrina would probably get an additional 3 feet. He accused the Army Corps of Engineers of not rebuilding the levee properly.
"Everybody's home's been crushed, and let's hope their dreams aren't," he said.
Contributing: Mary Foster, Adam Nossiter, Michelle Roberts, Brett Martel, Julia Silverman, Janet McConnaughey.