Hurricane Georges gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday as it headed for the Mississippi River Delta, leaving a trail of wreckage along the scenic Florida Keys.
After killing more than 300 people in the Caribbean, Georges took no lives in Florida when it hit Friday. From the Keys, it was on a path across the gulf toward New Orleans with 110 mph winds. Hurricane warnings were posted along 330 miles of coast from Morgan City, La., to Panama City, Fla.More than 1.5 million people were ordered to leave New Orleans and low-lying coastal areas. Bumper-to-bumper traffic lined up on I-10 out of New Orleans. The American Red Cross set up 25 shelters to handle the evacuees. Schools were closed for Mon-day.
"This is kind of like looking down the barrel of a shotgun and hoping it turns," said state police Lt. Col. Ronnie Jones.
The center of the storm was expected to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River, about 75 miles southeast of New Orleans, sometime between Sunday and Monday afternoon. When its hits, the storm could have strengthened into a Category 3 storm, with winds above 111 mph.
Forecasters said Georges could slow as it neared land, drenching some areas in Louisiana with more than 20 inches of rain. A storm surge of 10 to 15 feet was expected in many areas Sunday or Monday.
Georges was the most serious storm to threaten New Orleans since 1969, when Camille slammed into the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, causing flooding as far north as Virginia and West Virginia and killing 259 people.
Much of New Orleans is below sea level, and the city is bordered by swamps, lakes and the Mississippi River. The city is protected by 130 miles of levees and 21 powerful pumping stations that suck storm water from streets and send it into drainage canals.
Late Saturday, Georges was centered about 275 miles southeast of New Orleans, moving northwest at 10 mph.
Under partly sunny skies Saturday, residents of Key West surveyed the collapsed walls, missing roofs and other damage wrought by winds of more than 100 mph Friday. Broken trees and debris covered many of the other islands in the chain.
"The coconuts were like cannonballs blowing in the wind," said Davin Kusik, who lives at the Venture Out mobile home park on Cud-joe Key.
Parts of the chain of islands were expected to be without water and electricity until at least Mon-day.
In the lower Keys, residents who refused to evacuate emerged from nearly two days of seclusion to survey the ravaged homes, wrecked houseboats and snapped concrete utility poles.
"I was in a very safe home and still had to physically hold one of the doors to keep it from blowing in," Kusik said on Cudjoe Key. "The majority of places, even the ones I've built that we thought we built good, just let loose and blew apart."
Key West's colorful Houseboat Row was mostly demolished. A lone survivor stood about 500 feet offshore.
U.S. 1, the only road connecting the Keys to the mainland, reopened down to Conch Key, about halfway down the island chain. Only returning residents were allowed through and there were long traffic jams. Officials let through hundreds of cars before closing down the whole stretch again at 6 p.m.