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Lili Puts on Ferocious Show, but Fades Quickly

Louisiana: Arriving with 145 mph winds and flooding, the storm is downgraded from a hurricane by afternoon. No deaths are reported.


NEW IBERIA, La. — Hurricane Lili pounded to land Thursday, churning the air with furious winds and stinging rains. Billboards bent clear to the mud, trees snapped like wooden matches and buildings splintered and flew to pieces.

Lili was messy, inconvenient and extremely expensive, but it wasn't nearly as bad as officials feared. "It looks like we were lucky," Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster said.

Eleven parishes were evacuated. Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to seek shelter on higher ground. The hurricane cut power to more than 200,000 homes and businesses, froze oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and ground the Bayou State to a halt with widespread flooding and intense winds.

No deaths were reported.

Just hours before landfall, forecasters clocked winds at 145 mph and classified Lili as a dangerous Category 4 hurricane. But dry air and cool waters sapped the storm's strength, and winds knocked the hurricane out of formation as it reached land.

"We knew some of those factors were there, but we weren't certain they would lead to such a dramatic weakening at the last minute," said Edward Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Lili raged ashore at dawn over Marsh Island, plowed across New Iberia and stormed onto central Louisiana, growing weaker and wider as it moved inland. The fiercest winds roared over the coastline at 120 mph, ripping shingles off roofs and flattening sugar cane fields. A pair of 18-wheelers flipped over on Interstate 10. A communications tower toppled in Lafayette, and two people were injured when a roof collapsed.

By late afternoon, Lili had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

When the worst of the storm passed, wary coastal residents ventured into pelting rain and stiff wind gusts to see the wreckage left behind. Ancient oaks were shattered. Power lines drooped in lazy loops onto flooded roadways. Lawns and parking lots were swallowed by murky waters. The town of Montegut, outside New Orleans, was awash in 3 feet of water.

"We thought, 'Oh it's going to turn.' It's been 10 years since we've had a bad storm here," said Brenda Renard. "But she just kept coming in."

Renard, 59, works at the Inn of Iberia, which served as a cramped shelter for hundreds of coastal residents who delayed their flight until it was too late to get out. When the winds screamed outside, families poured frantically into the motel lobby--only to find there was no room at the inn. "But we couldn't turn them away," Renard said. "We felt like we had to keep it open for everybody."

So the inn opened up the cavernous banquet halls, and the families huddled on the tile floors, staring out the windows as signposts, barbecue grills and basketball hoops soared past. "We saw the entire top of a building go by," Renard said.

The power in Lafayette blinked off in midmorning, turning the lobby of the Marriott into a dim, warm cavern. Every room was taken; guests crowded in the doorways to watch towering pine trees crack and tumble. Metal signs and window screens skipped along the streets. All morning long, the gales screamed outside.

Wandering the hotel hallways early Thursday morning, Allen Davis Sr., a lifelong Louisianan, bumped into a pleasant surprise: His cousin, Thelma Collins, had taken shelter in the same hotel. "We've been knowing what to do since we came up," said Davis, 57. "When the hurricane's coming you got to get out."

The 56-year-old Collins had done just that, abandoning her New Iberia mobile home to the rages of the storm. The pair stood chatting, then wandered off.

"It was nice seeing you, baby," said Collins, padding barefoot back to her room to put on a pot of coffee.

"Same here, sweetheart," Davis called to her retreating muumuu. Outside, the storm raged on.

The pair grew up in Acadiana, a flat wash of bayous, sugar cane fields and tangled oak groves. It's home to Tabasco sauce and Creole cooking and a French that's twisted so far off its vine it's come to be Cajun, a tongue in its own right.

This smattering of shoreline towns is still home to the descendants of French settlers who fled Canada to escape the British--and have been doing battle ever since with the decidedly inhospitable climes of south Louisiana.

Around here hurricanes are something of a tradition. The climatic convulsions stitch generations into a continuous line of storm survivors--and give the third coast an opening to show off its tongue-in-cheek brand of grit.

When homeowners are through hammering plywood over their windows, they paint on saucy slogans. "Bring it on Lili," says one. Another, on a bungalow in New Iberia reads: "Not scared. Not this house. Not gonna evacuate." And then there was the terse suggestion: "Pray."

"I've been here through 'em all," said Darryl Davis. He and his wife ignored official pleas to evacuate New Iberia, sat before their picture windows and watched Lili shred their densely wooded lawn. "My grandparents lived here and her grandparents too. We worry but we know what to expect."

In shelters, families gathered in the darkness and spoke of the storms that have blown through before. They mention the hurricanes by name--Andrew, Audrey, Hilda.

"I've been living here all my life and I've seen them come and go," said Marie Herpin, 75.

When Herpin was a girl, her family knew what to do when skies turned leaden and the winds kicked up: They crawled into the underground dirt shelters that used to be standard in the homes of south Louisiana, useful for storing sweet potatoes and riding out the tempests.

"We were used to that," Herpin said. "And we prayed a lot. My aunt would walk around with a rosary whenever the storms came in."

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