Monday, August 29, 2005

From my friend Natalie

A lot of you know my friend Natalie. She writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer, but we met while we both worked at The Times-Picayune in NOLA. When I called her yesterday to check in on mutual friends in NOLA, she answered the phone by saying, "Hi, I'm in your hometown."

She had just stepped off a plane in NOLA as she had arrived to cover the story for the Philadelphia papers. Here is her first article from NOLA:

Preparing for the worst

New Orleans braces for a monster storm

By Natalie Pompilio

Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane Katrina, one of the strongest storms ever to threaten the United States, was headed toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast early today with 160-m.p.h. winds, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

President Bush declared a state of emergency for Louisiana and Mississippi, while elected officials in New Orleans and neighboring counties urged residents to evacuate. Mayor Ray Nagin warned that the Category 5 storm was the one "most of us have long feared."

The bowl-shaped city lies below sea level and is protected by a series of levees. Katrina could bring a storm surge as high as 28 feet, which could carry water into streets and homes, forecasters said.

The giant storm had the potential to be the strongest hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Andrew, with 165-m.p.h. winds, hit parts of South Florida and Louisiana, killed 58 people, and caused $44 billion in damage.

A much-weaker Katrina churned across Florida last week, leaving nine people dead and causing massive flooding. The storm gained strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico over the weekend.

Nagin, the city's mayor, ordered a mandatory evacuation for New Orleans' 485,000 residents and opened the Superdome as a shelter of last resort, bluntly warning those who stayed that they would be at the mercy of Katrina's high winds, 28-foot storm surge, and 15 inches of rain that threatened to overwhelm the city's protective levees.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," Nagin said at a televised news conference. "The city of New Orleans has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly... . We are facing a storm that most of us have long feared."

According to David Miller of the National Hurricane Center, Katrina was on track to make landfall late this morning in southeastern Louisiana, a low-lying area that experts say is especially ill-suited to withstand a direct hit from a powerful storm.

The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning from Morgan City, La., to the Alabama-Florida border, cautioning that the storm could march ashore anywhere in that region.

New Orleans looked like a ghost town yesterday. Homes and businesses were boarded up, and in the French Quarter, a tourism hub, a sign on one window advised Katrina: "Go East, Miss Thing."

Only bars seemed to be open in the Quarter, and there were not many. Tom Remillard of Boston was at one, drinking the locally brewed Abita beer on draft and talking to new friends. He and a vacationing friend found themselves trapped in the city, so they decided to make the best of it, he said.

"The hotel we're staying at, it's been here since the Civil War," Remillard, 41, said. "It's survived all these years, I think it'll survive this."

Thousands of vehicles jammed the roads exiting southeastern Louisiana yesterday. Bradley and Connie Tompkins, both 28, were getting ready to join the rush, heading toward inland Baton Rouge. The couple took one of the last flights from Philadelphia to New Orleans yesterday morning, eager to grab their insurance papers and photographs from their home near Lake Pontchartrain.

"Essentially, our lives could be destroyed," said Connie Tompkins, a Louisiana native.

Bradley Tompkins grew up in Media, Pa., and graduated from Millersville University. He and his wife had spent part of the weekend at a family wedding in Drexel Hill, Pa. But while other guests danced and laughed, they stood in a corner. Connie Tompkins picked the polish off her newly manicured nails, and Bradley Tompkins found three gin-and-tonics could not relax him.

"This is potentially the best weekend of their lives and we're happy for them," Bradley Tompkins said of his cousin and her husband. "But it could be the worst weekend of ours."

While hundreds of thousands fled, tens of thousands also stayed - trapped tourists, residents too old or unable to travel, die-hards determined to ride out the storm. Many took shelter in county-operated shelters, such as the 70,000-seat Superdome. At one point, the line of people waiting to get inside the Superdome, home to the NFL's New Orleans Saints, stretched more than halfway around the dome.

Officials told people to carry enough food and water to last up to five days. Not everyone listened. Tim and Ricklyn Williams, who recently moved to New Orleans, had only a small bag with them - and most of it was taken up by two pairs of shoes and Clinique perfume belonging to Ricklyn.

"We don't need a blanket. We love each other," said Tim, 34, to the delight of his new wife, 45.

Dawn Salmon of Huntingdon Valley came to New Orleans yesterday by choice: to get her 19-year-old daughter, Liz, out of the city. Salmon, 49, had tried to get her oldest child out via plane and train and had failed, as airlines and trains were booked. Liz was too young to rent a car on her own.

So Salmon went to her. The two met at the airport, after Liz had been forced from her dormitory at Loyola University. Together, they went to find a rental car. Poring over a map, they said they did not know where they would go - Houston or Memphis or Little Rock or Atlanta - but they knew they would be all right if they were together.

"I'm not scared, but I would be if I weren't here and she were here by herself," Dawn Salmon said. "I'm a mom."

Contact staff writer Natalie Pompilio at 215-854-2813 or This article contains information from the Washington Post.


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