Hurricane Georges is downgraded to a tropical storm, but not before it left a trail of destruction.
JIM LEHRER: Phil Ponce has the hurricane story.
PHIL PONCE: Hurricane Georges brought high winds and torrential rains as it continued the Northwest path over the weekend. The hurricane had already brought death and caused billions of dollars in damage in the Caribbean when it struck the low-lying Florida Keys late Friday. Many homes on the 100-mile long chain of islands sustained heavy damage. For the next two days, Hurricane Georges hovered over the Gulf of Mexico, regaining speed and threatening the Gulf Coast. This morning the hurricane, with heavy rains and winds gusting up to 175 miles per hour, again made its presence known. Georges made landfall at Ocean Springs, Mississippi, along the coast. Residents were forced into nearby shelters as rising waters damaged homes, flooded roadways, and left thousands in the area without power. Georges dumped 20 inches of rain on the Florida Panhandle and 18 inches on Biloxi, Mississippi. New Orleans, which was braced for the worst, was spared a direct hit. But the threat is far from over. Rising tides continued to flood homes and roadways in the area. Thousands of New Orleans residents are in shelters, including those who sought refuge in the Louisiana Super Dome, built to withstand 200-mile-per-hour winds. Throughout the region about 1 1/2 million people have been advised to leave their homes.
PHIL PONCE: An update form Miles Lawrence, hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. I spoke with him a short time ago. Mr. Lawrence, where is the hurricane right now?
MILES LAWRENCE: The center of the hurricane is located inland over Southern Mississippi about 25 miles North of Biloxi.
PHIL PONCE: And how far out does it extend, as far as its impact is concerned?
MILES LAWRENCE: Well, there's heavy rain over almost all of Mississippi and Alabama, and a little bit into the surrounding states into Eastern Louisiana. Strong winds are also occurring over the southern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida Panhandle, and Southeastern Mississippi. But the winds are starting to calm down a little bit. There's also strong winds still onshore to the East of the center, to the East of Biloxi, which is still holding some of the coastal flooding, water, near the shore.
PHIL PONCE: And Mr. Lawrence, when you talk about the strength of the winds, in terms of miles per hour, what are you hearing?
MILES LAWRENCE: We had just decreased the wind speeds of Georges down to 70 miles an hour. And that brings it from a hurricane down to a tropical storm.
PHIL PONCE: As far as the speed of Georges at this point, how fast is it traveling?
MILES LAWRENCE: It's moving very slow - perhaps three four miles an hour, really just drifting northward.
PHIL PONCE: And so, what does that lingering quality - what does that mean as far as the kind of damage that it can do?
MILES LAWRENCE: Well, the slower the storm moves, there are several things that happen. First of all, the heavy rainfall, of which there is a lot, will be even more than on a fast-moving storm, because the storm is staying over one place longer. It gives it more of an opportunity to rain. And we've seen rainfall amounts up to 25 inches in some locations near the center of the storm. The other thing is that the strong onshore winds -- even though the winds are decreasing - will continue to blow the coastal - Gulf Coast waters - onto the land and keep the storm surge from receding faster, and also these strong winds will - just over any location - will last longer because of the slow movement. So all of the weather in connection with the hurricane will last longer over any particular location, with a slow-moving storm.
PHIL PONCE: And Mr. Lawrence, you talked about 25 inches of rain in some places. Is that much rain common in hurricanes that are storms of this kind?
MILES LAWRENCE: No, it's not common. To me, 25 inches is an astronomical amount and can cause as much damage as any other aspect of the hurricane. Now there have been other hurricanes with even more wind. We had a hurricane a year or two ago, Danny, in roughly the same location in which rainfall amounts of over 30 inches were measured. And before this storm is over, we might see amounts above 30 inches.
PHIL PONCE: And the potential impact on subsequent flooding, what are some of your concerns along those lines?
MILES LAWRENCE: Well, as the winds die down, and as the coastal storm surge flooding starts to recede, the heavy rainfall threat brings up the possibility of inland flashfloods and urban flooding, and so this becomes a main problem. And this problem can shift far inland. It doesn't have to just be along the coast, where the center of the hurricane is right now but can extend hundreds of miles inland along the path of the storm. Even after the storm is weakened to a depression, the heavy rain can be almost as heavy as it is right now.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Lawrence, we've seen pictures of people in shelters; we've seen pictures of people in the Super Dome in New Orleans. What advice are you giving local officials as far as when people will be allowed or can go back to their homes?
MILES LAWRENCE: Well, we've taken away the hurricane warning for the coast now, and all we've got up right now is a tropical storm warning. And each community has their own rules as far as what they do in terms of letting people go back home and resume their activities. But as far as I know now, most of the shelters in the warning area are still open, and people are not yet returning to the coast.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Lawrence, based on past patterns of hurricanes or storms, where might this be headed now?
MILES LAWRENCE: Well, it's going to be moving slowly, heading in a generally North and then Northeast direction, spreading some heavy rain into Northern Alabama, and on into the -- eventually, we should see the remnants of this storm move off the East Coast of the United States along the Middle Atlantic states.
PHIL PONCE: And how much rain is a possibility? I take it you're not anticipating twenty or twenty-five inches in the area it moves into?
MILES LAWRENCE: no, no, no. The rain should taper off as the storm moves further inland. And I'm not really prepared to say what's going to happen for more than the next 24 hours. But in the next day or two there could be substantial amounts of rain moving across some of the mid-Atlantic states. But it's a little too early to get specific about that.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Lawrence, thank you very much.
MILES LAWRENCE: You're welcome.