NEW YORK — Weather forecasters were predicting a worst-case scenario Sunday as category five Hurricane Katrina barreled toward New Orleans, threatening lives, businesses and properties across a large swath of the Gulf Coast.
Gas prices could be affected, with oil rigs shutting down.
New Orleans attracts 7 million annual visitors and is one of the nation’s largest ports. Retailers took precautions in advance, after heeding warnings from government and weather authorities, and kept closed Sunday. With the hurricane expected to hit between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. today, they could lose weeks of selling, depending on the extent of damage and power outages. Early projections had Katrina swamping much of southeastern Louisiana, leaving residents and businesses without power or sewage for up to six months.
Wal-Mart, by around 1 p.m. Sunday, had 27 stores in the affected area closed, and expected that number to grow throughout the day, according to spokeswoman Sharon Weber. “We closed in plenty of time for our associates to be with their families,” Weber said.
Gap Inc. has 17 Gap, 14 Old Navy and eight Banana Republic stores in Louisiana, which were closed Sunday, according to Kris Marubio, manager of Gap corporate communications. Last week in Florida, 50 Gap Inc. stores were closed and later reopened.
Belk Inc., which has a smaller presence in the area, shut down its two stores in Biloxi, Miss. and Gautier, La., and its Belk unit just outside New Orleans. “People have gone through hurricanes a number a times. It’s been tough on customers and sales associates,” said Steve Pernotto, spokesman. “We evacuated and followed the guidelines set by the state.”
Some other chains that have a major presence in the New Orleans area are Family Dollar, Big Lots, Dillard’s, Gator’s Discount Stores, and Sears, Roebuck. In New Orleans, there are two major shopping centers, Canal Place and Riverwalk.
Last week Katrina killed seven people and left about a million without power in southern Florida when it hit there on Thursday as a category one hurricane. The storm strengthened over the weekend and had sustained winds of 175 miles per hour and a possible storm surge of up to 28 feet as it approached New Orleans.
Category five is the highest classification for a hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale and applies to storms with sustained winds above 155 mph.
Since weather record-keeping began, only three category five storms have made landfall in the U.S.: the Labor Day storm of 1935, Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Andrew remains the costliest hurricane on record. It leveled parts of southern Miami and tallied $26.2 billion in damage across the Southeast. Camille, which hit just east of Katrina’s projected path had sustained winds of 190 mph and killed 256 people as it made its way inland.
New Orleans proper has about 485,000 residents, but the total population for metropolitan area is close to 1.3 million. Many heeded the mandatory evacuation ordered by Mayor Ray Nagin and began heading north and westward before sunrise on Sunday, and motels as far away as Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., were booked by midday. Shelters were also being set up at the Superdome and nine other sites around New Orleans as a last resort.
Sunday afternoon, President Bush thanked the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi for preparing their citizens and urged those still in the path of the deadly storm to evacuate.
New Orleans is particularly vulnerable to storm surge since about 75 percent of the city sits below sea level. A series of levees and pumps protect the area from the Gulf, Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River delta, but those safeguards were unlikely to withstand a category four or five storm, experts said. The area is expected to be further saturated with five to 15 inches of rain.
Hurricane force winds could affect at least 100 miles of the coastline and possibly 100 miles inland. Tropical storm warnings, which are for winds up to 75 miles an hour, extend over 400 miles.
Hurricane warnings were in effect from Morgan City, La., eastward to the Alabama-Florida border.
Before the storm hit, Wal-Mart sent truckloads of water, gas cans, generators and other merchandise to the stores and also has truckloads of merchandise ready to hit the road after the storm, including ice, tarps, Pop Tarts and other items people typically need after hurricanes.
Weber also said the company has an 800 number for workers to call so they know when it’s OK to return to work.