LOUISIANA is taking stock of the damage from Hurricane Andrew, which blew ashore at dawn yesterday on Cajun country with 140 mile-per-hour winds and a 15-foot tidal surge.
The worst of the storm passed west of New Orleans, which earlier had looked likely to be struck head-on. Parts of the low-lying city, home to 1.6 million people, could have been inundated under 24 feet of water.
Instead, Andrew's fury shifted to mid-sized Morgan City and Lafayette. After the Category 4 hurricane passed, Gov. Edwin Edwards dispatched helicopters, boats, and land vehicles to see the damage. One death here has been reported. Andrew was already blamed for 17 deaths in Florida and the Bahamas.
Added to the estimated $15 billion to $20 billion in damage to Florida, the destruction here is expected to make Hurricane Andrew one of the costliest natural disasters in United States history.
As Andrew advanced toward the coast Tuesday night, thousands of Louisianans fled to shelters, to higher ground inland, or to Mississippi. More than a thousand crowded into the Centroplex convention center in Baton Rouge, where American Red Cross volunteers handed out donated infant formula, disposable diapers, and box dinners of fried chicken.
Hilton Lacaze worried about his mobile home in Morgan City.
"I've seen what [Andrew] did in Florida," the tattooed tugboat captain said as he played cards with a friend. Grab what's important
Elsewhere in the shelter, Deborah Bardwell and 20 family members had spread blankets or sleeping bags after fleeing Buras, a town at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
"When they told us we had to evacuate Buras, that's when we left," she said. They grabbed "pictures, important papers, kids, blankets, everything we love," and hit the highway.
Tonnya Grundstrom, also from Buras, had her youngest child with her but sent her two school-age children with her sister to Mississippi so they could attend school for a few weeks. "That way they won't get behind," said Ms. Grundstrom, who bragged that her daughter is a straight-A student. "And if the storm hits and tears things up, they'll be there a couple of months."
Grundstrom has been through this before. "I was nine years old when Camille hit. We lost everything in '69," she said. But after years of living elsewhere, "would you believe I just relocated down there two weeks ago?"
Pamela Lebarge, who says all the residents of Buras are oyster fishermen, defends living on the coast. "That's our home. We've been there all our lives. The people are different there. You don't know a stranger." Vacation with Andrew
One family at the shelter was in the midst of a particularly inauspicious foreign vacation. Several days earlier Lawrence, Lyn, and David Dollimore of England had slept with heads on desks in an Ocla, Fla., shelter after Hurricane Andrew chased them from their Orlando hotel.
Continuing their US tour, the Dollimores flew to Louisiana to sample the famous cooking of New Orleans. After just one night they found themselves again fleeing Hurricane Andrew.
Ron Hamm, a chaplain in the Civil Air Patrol, discovered the Dollimores and took them home. "We're going to put them in a bed that hopefully won't have to be sandbagged," he said. Louisiana a target
Brett Kriger didn't expect a lot of sleep Tuesday night. As deputy assistant of Louisiana's Office of Emergency Preparedness, he had been on duty since 5:30 a.m. the day before. "I'm thinking about going home, taking a shower, changing clothes and coming back," Mr. Kriger said.
Hurricanes are the No. 1 reason for his job, and a map in the OEP's Operations Rooms shows why. It charts the course of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico since 1831. Whether they started in the Atlantic, like Andrew, or off the Pacific coast of Guatemala, almost all made landfall in Louisiana. The room is strictly low-tech. Status reports - roads closed, shelters open - are updated on chalk boards.
But the operations room has long proved serviceable as an emergency center for oil-spills, floods, national-security exercises, hazardous-materials mishaps, and the annual drills for three nuclear-power plants. Only three months ago, the operations room dealt with "Hurricane Melinda," an exercise in emergency preparedness. "It was a good test of our limitations," Mr. Kriger says. However, Louisiana's main limitation is the lack of roads for evacuating New Orleans quickly.
This time, that turned out not to be critical. But Kriger fretted that no traffic jams developed outside of New Orleans before the path of Andrew was certain - meaning that residents were ignoring a voluntary evacuation order.
Kriger said: "People aren't taking it seriously."
* Funds to help relief efforts can be given by calling the American Red Cross at 1-800-842-3300