Katrina Slams the Gulf Coast

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It was a day of fear, drama, and concern as Hurricane Katrina, a raging Category 4 storm, reached land after gathering strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

By this afternoon, the storm had moved inland and weakened to a Category 2 storm, but, when it made landfall east of New Orleans at 6:10 a.m., it blew winds of 145 miles per hour with driving rain.

While Bookselling This Week was unable to contact booksellers in New Orleans on either land lines or cell phones, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and A.P. were reporting that Katrina had ripped holes in the roof of the Superdome (where thousands of the city's residents had taken shelter), blown out the windows of high-rise buildings, and left floods that forced residents into the attics of homes, or to the tops of roofs.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had ordered the entire city of 485,000 to evacuate, but, according to published reports, it's estimated that approximately 100,000 city residents decided to ride out the storm or lacked the means to leave. The National Hurricane Center warned that New Orleans would feel the force of Katrina throughout the day, and that it still faced the risk of a 15-foot storm surge, a serious event for a city located below sea level.

In Mobile, Alabama, Russ Adams of Bienville Books, spoke to BTW via phone from his store, a two-story, 80-year-old brick-and-mortar building (nestled between two other buildings) on Dauphin Street, just a few blocks west of the Mobile River. Adams had made the 10-minute walk to work in the morning, before the full force of the hurricane hit the city. He planned to sit out the storm at the 700-square-foot store, which was being buffeted by Katrina's 90 miles-per-hour winds. He said the additional fear was the potential of flooding from nearby Mobile Bay, as officials were expressing concern that there could be a 10- to 12-foot storm surge from the hurricane.

With initial reports predicting that Katrina would make landfall further west of Mobile, Adams said, "We honestly didn't expect it to be this bad." While Hurricane Ivan last year had damaged his store's roof, Adams said that today's storm was far worse. "I'm hoping it's not going to flood. The water is higher than I've ever seen." There was still power and telephone service in the store, and, holding a portable phone as he stood near a blown out window, Adams described the rainy scene in front of Bienville Books. "There are bad gusts. Trees and tree limbs are down, and I'm seeing water in the street." As a police cruiser navigated the flooded street, Adams summed up the scene. "It's bad here."

At Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, manager Thomas Miller said that, although it was "windy and raining a lot," the store was open, undamaged, and doing business. "Right now, a lot of people who evacuated the Gulf Coast are here," he explained. "All the hotel rooms in the city are full." He noted, however, that the city had not yet faced the brunt of the storm, which was expected to hit later tonight, but he added that by the time Katrina hits Jackson, the storm is expected to be much less severe and is not expected to cause much damage. "Where we are, the worst that will [probably] happen is that we'll lose power. I just hope all of those people in the south fare as well as can be expected," he said.

Further north, in Oxford, Mississippi, Richard Howorth, faced the dual challenge of responding to the effects of Katrina as both the owner of Square Books and the mayor of Oxford. He told BTW that on Sunday, one day after Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency, he had participated in a conference call with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and state and county officials. Howorth said that the call covered a number of topics, including how to deal with possible price gouging, and that Oxford police officers and firefighters were heading south to assist the stricken cities and towns on the Gulf Coast.

With a forecast of rain and winds gusting up to 45 miles per hour, the greatest concern, Howorth said, were tornadoes. He noted that most of the public shelters were located along the interstate corridor, where people were gathering in such structures as city halls, churches, and firehouses. Like many north of New Orleans, Howorth's thoughts were with those facing the fierce landfall of Katrina, and of the many who had evacuated the city. "All the hotel rooms up here are gone," he said, "and a lot of people are staying with friends and family."

Before Katrina reached the Gulf Coast Monday morning, the storm first hit the east coast of Florida on Thursday evening. "It really knocked us around," said Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, which has four locations, including a store in Coral Gables, Florida, and one in Miami Beach. "The storm snuck up on us -- it wasn't supposed to be as significant as it was."

Kaplan continued, "We prepared as much as we could, but [weather forecasts indicated the storm] would go north. It hit the coast and started heading south. Miami and Coral Gables got the brunt of it."

Fortunately for Kaplan, while Hurricane Katrina left some 300,000 people in the Miami area without power (including Kaplan's residence), his stores in the Miami area did not suffer any damage nor did they lose power. "The stores are intact," he reported, and added, "Our caf is one of the sources of comfort for a lot of people."

Kaplan noted that schools are closed due to the hurricane hit and that "things are not back to normal. People are preoccupied -- there are lots of trees down, and people are scattered, some into hotels. It's been disruptive."

On the Florida Panhandle, booksellers were still feeling some of the effects of Katrina. Carolyn Chesser, owner of Bayou Book Company in Niceville, Florida, reported rains and high winds, but she intended to keep the store open as long as the area had power. She said, "I think we're going to be OK. We've got a number of customers coming in to get books." She compared Katrina with last year's Hurricane Ivan, which hit Niceville directly. "[Katrina's] winds were up to 70 miles per hour, but that's not as bad as with Hurricane Ivan, where winds were up to 100 to 150 miles per hour. During Ivan things were a lot worse for us. This time we dodged a bullet. I just feel really sorry for the people west of us."

In northern Louisiana, Windows, A Bookshop in Monroe had "some rains, but nothing like our friends down south," said bookseller Betty Jo Harris. "We're thanking our lucky stars that the hurricane is taking a northeasterly direction. We're faring great, but we're hundreds of miles from the coast." Harris was concerned about those closer to the Gulf. "I feel so sad about what's happening to them," she said.

Watch for BTW's continuing coverage of Hurricane Katrina's effect on independent booksellers in Thursday's issue and in the weeks to come. Booksellers who would like to share their experiences with our readers are asked to send an e-mail to [email protected]. --By Dan Cullen, David Grogan, and Karen Schechner