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Coastal residents now face flooding

BY PJ HELLER | BILOXI, Miss. | September 29, 1998

BILOXI, Miss. (Sept. 29, 1998) -- After a day of pounding the Gulf Coast

with fierce winds and driving rains, Hurricane Georges was downgraded late

Monday night to a tropical storm. But the worst could be yet to come.

While the hurricane force winds -- at one point there were gusts recorded of

more than 170 mph -- dropped to 40 mph, coastal communities were having to

deal today with the massive flooding as rains continued to pelt the region.

Forecasters said up to 40 inches of rain could hit the area before the

storm cleared out in the middle of the week.

"Disaster one is just finishing. Disaster two is just starting," said Hank

Turk, civil defense director in Jackson County, Miss. "We're going into

record river flooding."

Flash flood watches were posted throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

President Clinton declared disasters in parts of Florida, Louisiana,

Mississippi and Alabama.

Thousands of residents remained in shelters throughout the Gulf Coast. In

New Orleans, which was spared the brunt of the storm, evacuees who had fled

the area or who had sought shelter at the Louisiana Superdome began

returning to their homes Monday night. Officials said some 10,000 people

had been housed at the Superdome.

Mississippi officials said 18,000 residents had spent Sunday night in 97

shelters across the state; by Monday night the number of people staying in

the shelters had dropped to 14,000, they reported.

The Salvation Army deployed mobile canteens to several areas, including 21

in Mississippi.

From the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana, thousands of homes and buildings

suffered wind and water damaged, roads were flooded and covered with

debris, power was knocked out to nearly 700,000 people and trees were

uprooted by the force of the storm's 105 mph winds.

Three storm related deaths were reported along the Gulf Coast, pushing

Georges toll to more than 300 people killed. Nearly all of the fatalities

occurred in the Caribbean as Georges rampaged across the Leeward Islands,

the U.S. Virgin Islands, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba. Thousands

were left homeless.

Along the Gulf Coast, Mississippi bore the brunt of Georges wrath as it

made landfall before dawn Monday at Ocean Springs, between Biloxi and

Pascagoula. Biloxi reported 35 inches of rain.

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.

At 7 a.m. (CDT) Tuesday, the center of Georges was 20 miles north of

Mobile, AL, which recorded more than four-feet of water in its business

district Monday. The storm is expected to continue moving

eastward throughout the day, according to the National Weather Service.

Although tropical storm winds still extended 70 miles from the center,

forecasters expect to downgrade the storm to a tropical depression by

Tuesday afternoon.

Alabama and the Florida Panhandle received more than 20 inches of rain from

Georges.

National Guard troops using trucks and boats rescued about 200 people from

flooded homes in the Florida Panhandle, where most roads were reported

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

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

a direct hit from the storm.

"Taking the brunt (of the hurricane) at Ocean Springs, saved the city of

New Orleans," said Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice.

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.

Disaster response organizations, meantime, were gearing up to respond

once the storm had passed.

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 Monday. "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 75 miles to the north.

In Louisiana, relief agencies including the American Red Cross and Church

World Service were scheduled to meet Wednesday at the First Christian

Church of Greater New Orleans, according to Johnny Wray, executive director

of Week of Compassion (WOC), the Disciples of Christ disaster and emergency

program ministry, a primary part of which is linked with Church World

Service.

WOC was contacting pastors and regional ministers in Louisiana, Mississippi

and Alabama and northwest Florida about the storm's impact upon its

churches along the Gulf Coast, Wray reported.

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, 5 feet below 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.

Posted 9:00 a.m.EDT - September 29, 1998


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