As hurricane bears down, Saints leave for California

NEW ORLEANS -- After tracking the path of Hurricane Katrina on Saturday morning, the New Orleans Saints heeded the mayor's warning to evacuate the city as the storm charged toward the low-lying city with 155-mph winds and the threat of a catastrophic storm surge.

Saints public relations official Guy Bensel said Sunday that the football operations staff has secured practice fields and locker room facilities at San Jose State. The team was expected to fly to California on Sunday afternoon.

"The team decided ... that it would be best to first consider the safety of our organization and our families," Bensel said. "We decided to leave as late as possible on Sunday to give everyone enough time to take care of their personal situations and to ensure that everyone's family was out of harm's way.

"We will practice [in San Jose] midday on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and play Thursday [in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders]," Bensel said. "Our plans for flying home will be determined once we see what kind of condition the city is in. We are all hoping for the best for the city and the people that remain."

San Jose State was chosen, Bensel said, because the university is prepared to handle an NFL team. The Dallas Cowboys will be using San Jose State's facilities during the regular season when they play back-to-back games out west.

Acknowledging that large numbers of people, many of them stranded tourists, would be unable to leave before the eye of the storm strikes land sometime Monday morning, the city set up 10 places of last resort -- including the Superdome. New Orleans, with 485,000 inhabitants, sits below sea level.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," Mayor Ray Nagin said Sunday. "The city of New Orleans has never seen a hurricane of this magnitude hit it directly."

Meanwhile, Tulane has canceled all activities for the next several days; LSU closed its Baton Rouge campus until at least Tuesday (the Tigers open the football season Saturday at home against North Texas); and South Mississippi also closed its campus until further notice.

Katrina intensified into a Category 5 giant over the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of 175 mph before weakening slightly on a path to hit New Orleans after dawn on Monday. Katrina was downgraded to a Category 4 storm late Monday night, but the hurricane could still be the city's first direct hit in 40 years and the most powerful storm ever to slam the city.

"Have God on your side, definitely have God on your side," Nancy Noble said as she sat with her puppy and three friends in six lanes of one-way traffic on gridlocked Interstate 10. "It's very frightening."

But forecasters warned that Mississippi was also in danger because Katrina was such a big storm -- with hurricane-force winds extending up to 105 miles from the center -- that even areas far from the landfall could be devastated.

"I'm really scared,'' New Orleans resident Linda Young said as she filled her gas tank. "I've been through hurricanes, but this one scares me. I think everybody needs to get out."

The Superdome was already taking in people with special problems Sunday morning. People on walkers, some with oxygen tanks, began checking in when it opened about 8 a.m.

President Bush has pledged federal support.

"Katrina is comparable in intensity to Hurricane Camille of 1969 ... only larger," specialist Richard Pasch said at the National Hurricane Center. "Hurricanes rarely sustain such extreme winds for much time. However, we see no obvious large-scale effects to cause a substantial weakening of the system, and it is expected that the hurricane will be of Category 4 or 5 intensity when it reaches the coast."

Storm surges of up to 28 feet topped by waves up to 30 feet were possible in some areas, hurricane center meteorologist Chris Sisko said. Camille has the record for storm surges at 24 feet.

As much as 15 inches of rain also was possible.

Only three Category 5 hurricanes -- the highest on the Saffir-Simpson scale -- have hit the United States since record-keeping began. The last was 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which at 165 mph leveled parts of South Florida, killed 43 people and caused $31 billion in damage.

New Orleans has not taken a major direct hit from a hurricane since Betsy in 1965, when an 8- to 10-foot storm surge submerged parts of the city in seven feet of water. Betsy, a Category 3 storm, was blamed for 74 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

National Hurricane Center deputy director Ed Rappaport warned that Katrina, already responsible for nine deaths in South Florida as a mere Category 1, could be far worse for New Orleans.

"It would be the strongest we've had in recorded history there," Rappaport said. "We're hoping of course there'll be a slight tapering off at least of the winds, but we can't plan on that. ... We're in for some trouble here no matter what."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.