New Orleans empties as Hurricane Georges heads for the mainland

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The Independent Online
IN NEW Orleans. I knew we had walked into big trouble when the Bourbon & Orleans Hotel cut the price of our room by 90 per cent and gave us the best suite in the house.

"It's the hurricane rate," said the night clerk. "And I'll make sure I get you an up-grade." It seemed like a bargain, until a few moments' thought recalled the havoc Hurricane Georges had so far wreaked - 320 people dead in a week-long rampage through the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, almost the entire Dominican Republic of 8 million without power, and 85 per cent of Haiti's food crop destroyed. And it could be here any hour now.

Everyone else in New Orleans, the rest of Louisiana and large parts of neighbouring Mississippi was leaving, heading north and west. Heading anywhere, in fact, as long as it was away from the potential path of Hurricane Georges. Some were ordered from their homes. More than a million of them, some towing boats and trailers jammed with household goods, inched north and west along major highways in Louisiana and Mississippi. But we were tourists, the airport was shut, and we were staying.

As the day went on, it looked like the evacuees had made a good call. At lunchtime Georges' winds were whipping up to 110mph, churning the Gulf of Mexico, just 60 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi. By 3pm the first US death had been reported. By 4pm waves of 33 feet were reported. By 5pm, landfall had been made up the coast. New Orleans, a city that averages six feet below sea level and is bordered by swamps, tidal lakes and the Mississippi was now bracing itself.

The laid-back inhabitants of the Big Easy are used to tropical storms, but no one was in any doubt that Georges meant business. The police chief, mayor and local health chief were all on the local television station which is broadcasting hurricane coverage 24 hours a day, to urge everyone to leave town.

Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had been wiped off the headlines. Those who have insisted on staying are heading for the shelters. The Louisiana Superdome has told the State Office of Emergency Preparedness that it has space for 100,000 people but the Superdome is worried the refugees had arrived without enough food. Those evacuees who were interviewed on television seemed equally sanguine about what awaited them over the next 72 hours.

On the streets of the French quarter, the signs outside the restaurants and the bars were swinging in the wind as the staff hammered weather boarding against the flimsy-looking buildings. The famous French and Creole tourist restaurants were all closed and even McDonald's and Burger King were boarded up and closed down.

The only other people on the streets were queuing for food and water. Groups of tourists and locals followed each other from one closed grocery store to another until we converged on one with a queue stretching the length of the aisles, out of the building and down the street.

We managed to get hold of a dozen giant bags of crisps, wine, whiskey, Coca-Cola and as many bottles of water as we could carry. We got the last four radio batteries but missed out on the last set of candles - which were penis-shaped so perhaps just as well.

The few cafes and bars that were open were doing a roaring trade as those who were staying were determined to have a good "hurricane party", as they say in these parts.

Outside one boarded up restaurant a tarot card reader had set up his stall offering to foretell the future. He had few takers. Here, if you want to know the future, check out the gathering clouds and feel the breeze.

Across this city everyone has run out of bread and ice. In the Check Point Charlie bar, one of the last places still able to serve food, they are down to chicken nuggets, and the few drinkers are watching the New Orleans Saints football team survive against Indianapolis. But most people are watching channel 4 WWL, where Nash Roberts, their veteran weather presenter, has now established a cult following with his hurricane update. His followers have the best kind of motive - Mr Nash's message may save their skins.

Felt-tip pen in hand, he tracks the path of Georges with his hand-drawn symbol of the storm as he tries to reassure the audience with an array of longitude and latitude figures that Georges may just miss New Orleans and hit the nearby city of Mobile.

"Georges has fast worn out his welcome," intones Mr Nash with considerable understatement.

The city's daily paper, The Times-Picayune, does not attempt to assuage its readers' fears, laying out in three dimensional graphs under the headline "Why Georges is so dangerous", the reasons why the hurricane will hit New Orleans. It explains the worst-case scenario that will see the storm advance up the Mississippi basin, causing extensive flooding. It also shows, far too graphically, how the hurricane sucks up sea water into a 17ft wall of water that will threaten to overcome the city's flood defences.

Meanwhile, the city is on the look out for looters. The police chief is back on the television, warning anyone thinking of taking advantage of the chaos to do some unauthorised shopping, that he will happily chain the culprit to the nearest signpost for the duration of the storm. For some reason he includes child abusers in his tirade.

The Abbey Bar in the French Quarter has a simpler message attached in large letters outside its door: "If you loot we will shoot."

But the drinkers do not seem too concerned, as they shout out a karaoke anthem from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody": "Too late, it's time to go."

As well as a defence against floods and looters, the weather hoardings have become the city's one form of defiance: "Georges, go away," says one; "Hard times don't last, strong people do," says another.

Back at the Bourbon & Orleans, the hotel management is putting in place its emergency battle plan.

The computer is down so the housekeeper is doing room visits, checking who's staying and who's going.

She leaves behind a letter - perhaps the computer's last contribution to the hurricane defence - laying out the do's and don'ts. Keep windows closed; close all blackout drapes; do not open the balcony window for any reason. But the most worrying warning reads: "The city is threatened with a 'direct hit': put water in your tub for future use."

New Orleans knows what a direct hit means. In 1969, Hurricane Camille swept through the region, taking 30 or so lives, and everyone here is talking about Camille and Betsy, her equally destructive sister.

But life goes on. The hotel bar is packed ahead of the 6pm curfew and the hotel notice board announces that a wedding was due to take place yesterday night.

People are getting used to Georges. My wife even wants to name our unborn child after him.