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Winds of 175mph lash the South

Hurricane Georges: New Orleans spared worst as storm surges inland in its death-throes, but more bad weather is looming
HURRICANE GEORGES , which ravaged the Caribbean and the Florida Keys before landing with 175mph winds on the Mississippi coast early yesterday, was in its death throes last night, blowing itself out over Mississippi and southern Alabama.

But even as its winds fell below the 100mph hurricane force, Georges was leaving a legacy: the most destructive and widespread flooding for a generation over the Deep South of the United States.

Pounded by vast waves and sodden from hours of torrential rain - more than 20in had fallen across the region by late afternoon - several areas of Mobile, southern Alabama, were under water. Police and members of the National Guard waded through water feet deep to rescue people from their threatened homes. Many main roads in the Mississippi delta region were impassable.

The hurricane warning that had prompted the evacuation of almost 1.5 million people from western Louisiana to eastern Florida was rescinded, but was immediately replaced by flood alerts and tornado warnings, and evacuees were advised to remain in their shelters until it was declared safe to move.

To universal relief, however, the city of New Orleans, much of which lies below sea-level, was spared the full force of the hurricane.

The levees which protect the city were holding, with the one breach from Lake Pontchartrain, to the north, causing only limited damage.

After hours in which Hurricane Georges stalled off the Gulf coast, keeping meteorologists guessing as to where it would land, the eye of the storm finally came ashore more than 50 miles east of New Orleans, over Pascagoula, in Mississippi. Almost half a million people were without power across the region, and evacuees had to be moved from two shelters, both on the Mississippi coast, because of roof damage.

Meanwhile, as the most dangerous hurricane of the season was causing havoc over the United States Gulf coast, three more tropical weather systems, Jeanne, Ivan and Karl, were following close behind.

The hurricane frenzy in the Atlantic Ocean is a rare event. Meteorologists say there has been nothing like it since 1893.

Hurricane Jeanne, which is now about 900 miles south-west of the Azores, in the mid-Atlantic, is slowing as it moves north. However, it is still thought that the islands could be under threat over the next few days.

Karl is still a hurricane, with winds of about 100mph, but is expected to weaken.

William Gray, the doyen of hurricane forecasters, predicted that 10 of this year's tropical storms would become hurricanes. "This year will be distinctly more active than last year, but not as active as the very busy seasons of 1995 and 1996."

The ebbing of El Nino, combined with weather conditions in North Africa, are some of the reasons why this is a busier hurricane season than usual, but there may be worse to come.

The potential problem has been exacerbated by heavy coastal development, which has seen many Americans move to areas which are vulnerable to hurricanes.

Georges left a trail of devastation across the Caribbean, especially in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti and in St Kitts and Nevis. It passed the edge of southern Florida, damaging the Florida Keys, but then turned north-west to the Gulf coast.

Georges moved ashore early yesterday but moved east at the last moment, sparing New Orleans the worst.

In Louisiana, power cuts affected 100,000, and in Florida beachfront houses were threatened by high tides.

Off the Louisiana coast, the US Coast Guard was searching last night for a cargo ship, the Golden Star, and the tug that was pushing it, raising fears that it might collide with one of the oil rigs in the region.