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New Orleans braces for monster hurricane

Crescent City under evacuation; storm may overwhelm levees

This animated satellite image taken Sunday evening shows Katrina approaching the Gulf Coast.



12 p.m. ET Sunday

Position of center:
90 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River

Latitude: 27.8 north

89.4 west

Top sustained winds:
near 160 mph
Source: National Hurricane Center




NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- New Orleans braced for a catastrophic blow from Hurricane Katrina overnight, as forecasters predicted the Category 5 storm could drive a wall of water over the city's levees.

The huge storm, packing 160 mph winds, is expected to hit the northern Gulf Coast in the next nine hours and make landfall as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane Monday morning.

The National Hurricane Center reports that conditions are already deteriorating along the central and northeastern coast. (Watch video to see the worst case scenario)

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency Sunday and ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city. (Watch video of mayor's announcement)

"This is a threat that we've never faced before," Nagin said. "If we galvanize and gather around each other, I'm sure we will get through this."

He exempted essential federal, state, and local personnel; emergency and utility workers; transit workers; media; hotel workers; and patrons from the evacuation order.

About 1.3 million people live in New Orleans and its suburbs, and many began evacuating before sunrise. (Watch video to see who's staying and who's leaving)

Nagin estimated that nearly 1 million people had fled the city and its surrounding parishes by Sunday night. (Watch time lapse video of the evacuation)

Between 20,000 and 25,000 others who remained in the city lined up to take shelter in the Louisiana Superdome, lining up for what authorities warned would be an unpleasant day and a half at minimum.

City officials told stranded tourists to stay on third-floor levels or higher and away from windows. (See video from New Orleans, a city below sea level)

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said that New Orleans could expect a complete loss of electricity and water services as well as intense flooding.

"We know we're going to have property damage," she told CNN's "Larry King Live." "We know we're going to have high wind damage. We're hoping we're not going to lose a lot of lives."

About 70 percent of New Orleans is below sea level, and is protected from the Mississippi River by a series of levees. (Full story)

Forecasters predicted the storm surge could reach 28 feet; the highest levees around New Orleans are 18 feet high.

Hurricane-force winds extend 105 miles from the center of the mammoth storm and tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 230 miles. It is the most powerful storm to menace the central Gulf Coast in decades.

Isolated tornadoes are also possible Sunday across southern portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, forecasters said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency teams and other emergency teams were in place to move in as soon as the storm was over, FEMA Undersecretary Michael Brown said.

Katrina is blamed for at least seven deaths in Florida, where it made landfall Thursday as a Category 1 hurricane. As much as 18 inches of rain fell in some areas, flooding streets and homes. (See video of the damage floodwaters left in one family's new house)

At midnight ET, Katrina was centered about 90 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was moving to the northwest at about 10 mph.

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said: "There's certainly a chance it can weaken a bit before it gets to the coast, but unfortunately this is so large and so powerful that it's a little bit like the difference between being run over by an 18-wheeler or a freight train. Neither prospect is good." (Watch Mayfield's assessment of Katrina)

Bush issues disaster declarations

President Bush announced Sunday that he had issued disaster declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of southern Florida. The declaration for Miami-Dade and Broward counties in Florida will allow residents there to apply for federal disaster aid.

"We'll do everything in our power to help the people and communities affected by this storm," he said.

The president urged anyone in the storm's path "to put their own safety and the safety of their families first by moving to safe ground."

Jesse St. Amant, the emergency management chief for Louisiana's southernmost Plaquemines Parish, said nearly 95 percent of the parish's 27,000-plus residents had fled by Sunday afternoon. Those who remained were being told that they are "gambling with their own lives."

"I think they just don't believe something of this nature can ever happen in their lifespan, and I think they're going to be wrong," he said.

As far east as Mobile, Alabama, 118 miles away from New Orleans, authorities warned of storm surges approaching 20 feet.

"I'm afraid most people look at the map and say, 'It's going to New Orleans, we're all right,'" said Mobile Mayor Mike Deal. "We're in harm's way with the current path of this storm."

Hurricane warnings are posted from Morgan City, Louisiana, eastward to the Alabama-Florida state line, including New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. This means winds of at least 74 mph are expected in the warning area within the next 24 hours.

A tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch are in effect from the Alabama-Florida state line eastward to Destin, Florida, and from west of Morgan City to Intracoastal City, Louisiana. A tropical storm warning is also in effect from Intracoastal City, Louisiana, west to Cameron, Louisiana, and from Destin, Florida, eastward to Indian Pass, Florida.

A tropical storm warning means tropical storm conditions, including winds of at least 39 mph, are expected within 24 hours. A hurricane watch means hurricane conditions are possible, usually within 36 hours.

Category 5 is the most intense on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Only three Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the United States since records were kept. Those were the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, 1969's Hurricane Camille and Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the Miami area in 1992. Andrew remains the costliest U.S. hurricane on record, with $26.5 billion in losses.

Camille came ashore in Mississippi and killed 256 people.

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