Area bracing for Katrina's inland effects

By Michael Davis

As she churned inland Monday, disaster responders in the Southern Crescent were watching Hurricane Katrina and preparing for its impact here.

Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi early Monday morning with 145-mph winds and recorded a storm surge of at least 20 feet. In Mississippi, windows of a major hospital were blown out, utility poles dangled in the wind, and casinos were flooded. In some areas, authorities pulled stranded homeowners from roofs or rescued them from attics. In Alabama, exploding transformers lit up the early morning sky as power outages spread.

Red Cross officials said the relief agency was launching its "largest mobilization effort in history" in response to the hurricane.

A "national job," Ruben Brown, community affairs manager for the Red Cross's southern district, which serves Clayton, Fayette, Henry and Butts counties, said volunteers were being contacted from across the United States to respond to Katrina. It wasn't immediately clear how many would be sent from the south metro area, but some will likely be held back to respond to any effects the storm might have on this area.

"As time passes, we'll have more or less a full picture of the damage and how best Red Cross resources can be used," Brown said. "We're just waiting for the call."

The U.S. Army's First Army unit at Fort Gillem in Forest Park was also looking westward Monday as Katrina approached, activating its 24-hour crisis action team and sending key personnel to Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama.

"Right now, First Army is leaning forward and planning for any number of needs the states may have once this hurricane hits," said Lt. Gen. Russel L Honoré, the unit's commanding general. "I have been in contact with each of the state's adjutant generals and assured them that the First Army is ready to help."

Via helicopter, the unit may bring affected areas medical personnel sanitation equipment, and transportation to ford high water.

The First Army's Lt. Col. Richard Steele said Monday the unit alerted more teams that may be needed in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio but have not been dispatched.

Forecasts for the south metro area called for winds and possibly heavy rains extending through today. The National Weather Service in Peachtree City on Monday issued three advisories for areas including Clayton and Henry counties. A wind advisory was to last through this afternoon, with 25 to 35 mile-an-hour winds expected, said Meteorologist Eric Avila. A flood watch was also in effect. And a tornado watch was to be in effect until 8 p.m. Monday.

While we lie on the outer reaches of Katrina's expected path, the area could see some potentially heavy rains associated with the storm's outer rain bands, Avila said.

"It should be out of the area by Wednesday," he said, when forecasts call for only a 20 percent chance of rain. "The storm is expected to move a little quicker than they [previously] thought," he said.

Nevertheless, authorities in the area authorities were preparing Monday for localized flooding and downed trees, said Henry County Public Safety Director Mike Turner. With the ground saturated from a wetter-than-normal summer, he said high winds could easily topple trees causing power outages.

"I think there's a law somewhere that trees must fall on power lines," he only half-joked. He expected to open the county's emergency operations center sometime late Monday or today as storms moved in.

In Hampton, hit hard by storms from tropical weather systems this year and last, city employees were working to clear drains to avoid flood waters collecting from the impending storms, said City Councilman Bobby Jacobs Jr.

"There's a lot of house-keeping going on," he said.

Lovejoy Mayor Joe Murphy also said he would check on the homes of some residents hit hard by the recent storms in July. Drainage problems caused by privacy fences resulted in some flooding.

"If they've got the holes cut in their fences, then I don't think they're going to have a flooding problem," he said. "I think we're going to be all right."

Georgia Power crew members were told to report to work Monday with the expectation that they would not be sent home Monday evening, said utility spokeswoman Carol Boatright.

In all, 1,400 Georgia Power employees and contractors were mobilized to begin heading west toward the Alabama-Georgia border to receive instructions on where to respond, she said. "Each region throughout the state is contributing part of their staff," Boatright said.

She said crews were also held in the area to respond to any outages here.

Red Cross's Brown said there were 202 shelters open providing protection for almost 30,000 people in the areas surrounding the storm. Monday, 104 more shelters were on standby.

News Daily staff writer Justin Boron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.