One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to menace the United States sent panicked residents fleeing into snarled traffic and crammed shelters...

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NEW ORLEANS — One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to menace the United States sent panicked residents fleeing into snarled traffic and crammed shelters in the nation’s most storm-vulnerable city.


Forecasters said Hurricane Katrina was on a path to hit New Orleans around sunrise today. That would make it the city’s first direct hit in 40 years and the most-powerful storm ever to slam the city.


Nowhere else in the country would the sense of fear be more justified than in a city that’s 8 feet below sea level and facing more than 20 feet of levee-breaking flood waters from Hurricane Katrina.


“This has the potential to be as disastrous as the Asian tsunami. Tens of thousands of people could lose their lives. We could witness the total destruction of New Orleans as we know it,” Ivor van Heerden, director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, said as he ticked off the threats New Orleans faces from the ground, ocean and sky.


Katrina was downgraded from a Category 5 storm to a strong Category 4 as it approached land with 155 mph winds. Early today, winds whipped downtown New Orleans and blasts of thunder were heard.


Emergency officials fear that nearly 287 years of history could be destroyed in just hours and that half of the city’s old Victorian homes could be lost along with the old brick buildings of the French Quarter.


Hurricane Katrina was in position to be the second-strongest storm to hit the United States, behind the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that destroyed Matecumbe Key, Fla., and killed nearly 500 people.


“This is potentially one of the worst storms ever,” said University of Miami meteorology professor David Nolan, noting Katrina’s low pressure, large size, heavy winds, defined eyewall and heavy rains. As much as 15 inches was predicted.


Katrina’s threat was so acute that New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city of 480,000. He estimated that 80 percent of city residents had heeded the order.


Old-timers like 58-year-old Joseph Bentley remember Hurricane Betsy in 1965 as if it were yesterday.


That was a mere Category 3 storm and busted the levee on the Industrial Canal, making evacuation possible only by boat in his Ninth Ward neighborhood just down the street from the home of jazz great Fats Domino.


“This is no Betsy. This is a nightmare,” Bentley said.


Bentley headed to the Superdome yesterday morning, like most of the city’s low-income residents who had nowhere else to go. New Orleans is one of the nation’s poorest cities.


The Superdome descended into sweaty chaos. Gen. Hunt Downer of the Louisiana National Guard estimated 25,000 to 35,000 refugees were in the dome, though arena official Doug Thornton said it was closer to 9,000 in the stands, with more on the floor.


When a grim Nagin issued the mandatory evacuation order yesterday, he said: “We are facing a storm that most of us have feared. … God bless us.”


Three nursing-home patients being bused to a Baton Rouge, La., church died, one aboard the bus, another at the church and the third at a hospital, the local coroner said.


Katrina is on one of the worst possible tracks for New Orleans as it aims for Lake Pontchartrain, a 40-mile-wide shallow reservoir whose waters are already above the city. The lake will likely top the levees if not smash them, spilling water into the wide shallow bowl that is the city, which was established by the French in 1718.


If the levees hold but the water spills over, the water will be almost impossible to remove, considering the pumps will be swamped and shut down.


Some of the city’s pumps sit in houses that date to the 1890s, said Stevan Spencer, the Orleans Levee District’s chief engineer.


“It all really makes you wonder what the French were doing when they built this place,” Spencer said.


But somehow, the city has always survived, always gone about its own business in its own way and always attracted people like John Martin.


Martin plans to stay in an 1820s brick Creole townhouse on Dumaine Street in the French Quarter. A druid and voodoo priest, he said it’s tough to leave because he has four snakes, including a giant Burmese python, Eugene, who has gone into hiding.


The snake senses something coming, Martin said — something horrific.


“I don’t believe you’re going to go until God takes you,” said Martin, 60. “I’ve lived a good, full life and I’m not worried about it. You’ve got to take life as it comes.”


Katrina was a Category 1 storm with 80 mph winds Thursday when it hit South Florida with a soggy punch that flooded neighborhoods and left nine people dead. It strengthened rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico as it headed for New Orleans.


By last night, most major highways were cleared out, and state police warned that late escapes would be impossible after high winds hit elevated expressways over the surrounding swamps.


Evacuation orders were also posted along the Mississippi and Alabama coast and in barrier islands of the Florida Panhandle, where crashing waves swamped some coastal roads.


In Texas, 13 surfers had to be pulled to safety after becoming fatigued in 15-foot seas created by Katrina, the Coast Guard said.


Mississippi’s floating casinos packed up their chips and closed. The Waterford nuclear plant about 20 miles west of New Orleans was shut down.


Tourists stranded by the closure of New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport and the lack of rental cars packed the lobbies of high-rise hotels, which were exempt from the evacuation order to give people a place for “vertical evacuation.”