A monstrous Hurricane Katrina barreled toward New Orleans with 160-mph (257-kph) wind and a threat of a 28-foot (8.4-meter) storm surge, forcing a mandatory evacuation of the below-sea-level city and prayers for those who remained to face a doomsday scenario on Monday.
Pravda.ru reported earlier, that for as many as 35,000 of this city's poor, homeless and frail, just getting into the massive Louisiana Superdome and hunkering down was the hardest part.
"Have God on your side, definitely have God on your side," Nancy Noble was quoted as saying by the AP Sunday as she sat with her puppy and three friends in six lanes of one-way traffic on gridlocked Interstate 10. "It's very frightening."
Katrina intensified into a Category 5 giant over the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of 175 mph (281 kph) before weakening slightly on a path to hit New Orleans around sunrise Monday. That would make it the city's first direct hit in 40 years and the most powerful storm ever to slam the city, according to the AP.
Hurricane force winds were expected to reach Grand Isle, 60 miles (96 kilometers) south of New Orleans, by 1 a.m. (0600 GMT), and the eye of the hurricane was forecast to hit the barrier island around 8 a.m. (1300 GMT), the National Weather Center said early Monday.
Forecasters warned that Mississippi and Alabama were also in danger because Katrina was such a big storm, with hurricane-force winds extending up to 105 miles from the center. In addition to the winds, the storm packed the potential for a surge of 18 to 28 feet (5.4 to 8.4 meters), 30-foot (9-meter) waves and as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain.
For years, forecasters have warned of the nightmare flooding a big storm could bring to New Orleans, a bowl-shaped city bounded by the half-mile-(kilometer)wide Mississippi River and massive Lake Pontchartrain.
As much as 10 feet (3 meters) below sea level in spots, the city is as the mercy of a network of levees, canals and pumps to keep dry.
Scientists predicted Katrina could easily overtake that levee system, swamping the city under a 30-feet (9-meter) cesspool of toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins that could leave more than 1 million people homeless.