Georges hammers Gulf residents

BY PJ HELLER | BILOXI, Miss. | September 28, 1998


BILOXI, Miss. (Sept. 28, 1998) -- With residents along the Gulf Coast

hunkered down for the long haul, Hurricane Georges hammered away with

wind gusts of 174 mph and pounding rain as it made landfall along the

Mississippi coast.

By early afternoon, the killer storm's winds dimished to around 75 mph

and Georges was drifting over southern Mississippi. Forecasters said it

could dump up to 30 inches of rain over the area.

"It's going to be slow getting out of the area," said Linda Rouse, a

civil defense director in Harrison County, Miss. "We know it will be major

damage."

Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice asked President Clinton to declare an

emergency for the state as a result of the "direct impact" of the storm.

Approval would make the state eligible for federal assistance.

The storm made landfall before dawn at Ocean Springs, MS, between Biloxi

and Pascagoula. Alabama and the Florida Panhandle received 20 inches of

rain from Georges.

National Guard troops using trucks and boats rescued about 200 people

from flooded homes on the Florida Panhandle, where most roads were reported

under water and Interstate 10 was washed out near the Alabama line.

Power outages were widespread across Gulf Coast communities, affecting

nearly half a million residents. Roads were flooded, trees were down and

thousands of people were in emergency shelters. Curfews were imposed in

communities throughout the region.

At 1 p.m. (CDT), the National Weather Service reported the center of the

storm was just north of Biloxi and was moving to the north at about 3 mph.

It was expected to drift over southern Mississippi during the day and

continue to weaken over the next 24 hours.

A hurricane warning remained in effect from Grand Isle, La., to Destin,

Fla. Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 70 miles from the center;

tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 175 miles.

In Mississippi, wind gusts clocked at more than 170 mph were reported at

Keesler Air Force Base. Two tornadoes were reported in Jackson and Harrison

counties. In Gautier, a shelter housing more than 400 people had its roof

damaged, forcing the evacuees to other shelters. The roof of an elementary

school being used as a shelter in Pascagoula was also blown off. No

injuries were reported.

The American Red Cross had 72 shelters opened statewide and another 25

non-Red Cross shelters were housing people seeking safety from the storm.

Elsewhere, thousands of people were being housed in Red Cross shelters

in Florida, Alabama and Louisiana. The Salvation Army deployed mobile

canteens to several areas.

New Orleans, which was braced to receive the brunt of the Georges,

escaped a direct hit from the storm. One storm-related death was reported

in the city.

"We're prepared for the worst. We'll be ready for the worst. And we'll

pray for the best," said Deborah Conrad, a spokesman for the Louisiana

Office of Emergency Preparedness.

In St. Bernard Parish in southeastern Louisiana, a levee near the

Mississippi River broke, causing the town of Florissant to be flooded by

water up to nine feet deep. Residents had evacuated the town prior to the

flood.

Off the coast of Louisiana, the Coast Guard lost contact with a disabled

freighter and a tug trying to prevent it from drifting into oil platforms

in 30 feet seas. The freighter and tug had a crew of 25 people.

Faith-based organizations, meantime, were geared up to respond once the

storm had passed. Forecasters, however, warned that the storm could linger

over the Gulf Coast for several days.

One prediction said Harrison County could face as much as 30 hours of

hurricane force winds and 2.5 days of gale force winds.

In Mississippi, Baptist Disaster Relief was providing meals to evacuees

at some churches and hoped to bring an 18-wheeler "feeding station" -

capable of serving 20,000 meals at a time - to the coast on Tuesday.

"It's a brand new unit," said Paul Harrell, director of Baptist Disaster

Relief and president of the Mississippi VOAD (Volunteer Organizations

Active in Disasters). "This will be the first time we'll be able to test

its maximum capabilities."

A feeding station at Midway Baptist Church in Jackson was serving meals

to some of the 1,800 people who sough refuge at the Jackson Coliseum some

160 miles from the coast, Harrell reported.

Harrell said faith-based organizations were in a "wait and see" mode in

terms of response to the storm.

"We're waiting on the storm," he said. "It's still sitting on the coast

and we can't get in down there to assess the damage and to start the

cleanup operations."

Lawrence Bowden, chairperson of the disaster response committee for the

Alabama-west Florida United Methodist Church, agreed that any response

plans were a little premature.

"We're formulating some plans to move in and assist," Bowden said,

noting that it would probably be mid-week before any damage assessments

could be made in southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. "We're waiting

for things to settle down a little."

He said after an initial response setting up a distribution center,

providing cleaning supplies, generators and other needed items, relief

workers would begin look at long-range recovery plans.

Mike Stanton-Rich, a spokesman for the Mississippi conference of the

United Methodist Church, said the response team in the state would likely

be activated Tuesday when curfews were lifted. He said state police had

blocked access to the coast about 75 miles to the north.

Voluntary and mandatory evacuations had been ordered along the coast,

from Louisiana to Florida, as Georges took aim at the area after moving out

of the Florida Keys. Highways were jammed with bumper to bumper traffic

over the weekend and inland hotels quickly were filled. More than 1.5

million people were impacted by the evacuation orders.

The 1,500 residents of Grand Isle, LA, were told to leave their homes

for the fourth time in as many weeks because of different storms.

"It's a very emotional thing to close the door and not know if you're

going to have a home to go back to," said June Selzer of Arabi, La., who

evacuated the town with her sister and elderly parents.

Georges was on a collision course Sunday with New Orleans, prompting

fears of heavy rain and a storm surge that could inundate a city that sits

an average 6 feet under sea level. But the storm wobbled to the east and

slowed in the Gulf late Sunday night and began pounding Pascagoula, just

west of the Alabama border. Residents in low-lying and flood-prone areas in

the Mississippi coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson had

earlier been told to leave. Casinos along the coast closed Friday night

under a mandatory order from the state.

Georges has been blamed for more than 300 deaths as it rampaged across

the Caribbean. No deaths were reported in the Florida Keys as a result of

the storm.

Posted 8:00 a.m.EDT - September 29, 1998


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