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Katrina floods Gulf Coast, killing 55

Updated: 2005-08-30 18:56

Gulf Coast residents staggered from the body-blow inflicted by Hurricane Katrina, with more than a million people sweltering without power, miles of lowlands swamped and at least 55 dead a number likely to increase as rescuers reach the hardest-hit areas.

Bryan Vernon and Dorthy Bell are rescued from their rooftop after Hurricane Katrina hit, causing flooding in their New Orleans neighborhood, Monday Morning, Aug. 29, 2005. Officials called for a mandatory evacuation of the city, but many residents remained in the city. [AP]

Even with Katrina swirling away to the north, two different levee breaches in New Orleans sent a churning sea of water coursing through city streets.

Col. Rich Wagenaar of the Army Corps of Engineers, said a breach in the eastern part of the city was causing flooding and "significant evacuations" in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. He did not know how many people were affected by the flooding.

Authorities also were gathering information on a levee breach in the western part of New Orleans. Jason Binet, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said that breach began Monday afternoon and may have grown overnight.

Residents who had ridden out the brunt of Katrina now faced a second more insidious threat as flood waters continued their ascent well into the night.

"The hurricane was scary," Scott Radish told The Times-Picayune. "All the tree branches fell, but the building stood. I thought I was doing good. Then I noticed my Jeep was under water."

Across the Gulf Coast, people were rescued as they clung to rooftops, hundreds of trees were uprooted and sailboats were flung about like toys when Katrina crashed ashore Monday in what could become the most expensive storm in U.S. history.

The federal government began rushing baby formula, communications equipment, generators, water and ice into hard-hit areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, along with doctors, nurses and first-aid supplies.

The Pentagon sent experts to help with search-and-rescue operations.

The death toll jumped late Monday when Harrison County emergency operations center spokesman Jim Pollard said an estimated 50 people had died in the county, with some 30 dead at a beach-side apartment complex in Biloxi.

"This is our tsunami," Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway told the Biloxi Sun Herald.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency officials refused to confirm the deaths. Three other people were killed by falling trees elsewhere in Mississippi and two died in a traffic accident in Alabama, authorities said.

The total does not include 11 deaths in South Florida when a much-weaker Katrina first made landfall last week.

Katrina knocked out power to more than a million people from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, and authorities said it could be two months before electricity is restored to everyone. Ten major hospitals in New Orleans were running on emergency backup power.

"It will be unsafe to return to the coastal area for several days," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told evacuees Monday. "Be patient. Don't be in a hurry to go back."

According to preliminary assessments by AIR Worldwide Corp., a risk modeling firm, the property and casualty insurance industry faces as much as $26 billion in claims from Katrina.

That would make Katrina more expensive than the previous record-setting storm, Hurricane Andrew, which caused some $21 billion in insured losses in 1992 to property in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.

Mississippi's economy was also dealt a blow that could run into the millions, as the storm shuttered the flashy casinos that dot its coast. The gambling houses are built on barges anchored just off the beach, and Barbour said emergency officials had received reports of water reaching the third floors of some casinos.

After striking the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane, Katrina was later downgraded to a tropical storm as it passed through eastern Mississippi, moving north at 21 mph. Winds early Tuesday were still a dangerous 60 mph.

Forecasters said that as the storm moves north over the next few days, it may spawn tornadoes over the Southeast and swamp the Tennessee and Ohio valleys with a potentially ruinous 8 inches or more of rain.

At New Orleans' Superdome, where power was lost early Monday, some 9,000 refugees spent a second night in the dark bleachers. With the air conditioning off, the carpets were soggy, the bricks were slick with humidity and anxiety was rising.

"Everybody wants to go see their house. We want to know what's happened to us. It's hot, it's miserable and, on top of that, you're worried about your house," said Rosetta Junne, 37.

A 50-foot water main broke in New Orleans, making it unsafe to drink the city's water without first boiling it. And police made several arrests for looting.

In a particularly low-lying neighborhood on the south shore of Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain, a levee along a canal gave way and forced dozens of residents to flee or scramble to the roofs when water rose to their gutters.

"I've never encountered anything like it in my life. It just kept rising and rising and rising," said Bryan Vernon, who spent three hours on his roof, screaming over howling winds for someone to save him and his fiancee.

Across a street that had turned into a river bobbing with garbage cans, trash and old tires, a woman leaned from the second-story window of a brick home and pleaded to be rescued.

"There are three kids in here," the woman said. "Can you help us?"

In a subdivision of Gulfport, young children clung to one another in a small blue boat Monday evening as neighbors shuffled them out of the neighborhood.

"Let me tell you something, folks. I've been out there. It's complete devastation," Gulfport Fire Chief Pat Sullivan said Monday. He estimated that 75 percent of buildings in Gulfport have major roof damage, "if they have a roof left at all."

In Mobile, Ala., the storm knocked an oil rig free from its moorings, wedging it under a bridge. Muddy six-foot waves crashed into the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, flooding stately, antebellum mansions and littering them with oak branches.

"There are lots of homes through here worth a million dollars. At least they were yesterday," said a shirtless Fred Wright. "I've been here 25 years, and this is the worst I've ever seen the water."

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