Sep 23 11:54 AM US/Eastern
By MICHELLE ROBERTS and BRETT MARTEL
Associated Press Writers
Hurricane Rita's steady rains sent water pouring through breaches in a patched levee Friday, cascading into one of the city's lowest-lying neighborhoods in a devastating repeat of New Orleans' flooding nightmare.
"Our worst fears came true," said Maj. Barry Guidry of the Georgia National Guard.
"We have three significant breaches in the levee and the water is rising rapidly," he said. "At daybreak I found substantial breaks and they've grown larger."
Dozens of blocks in the Ninth Ward were under water as a waterfall at least 30 feet wide poured over and through a dike that had been used to patch breaks in the Industrial Canal levee. On the street that runs parallel to the canal, the water ran waist-deep and was rising fast. Guidry said water was rising about three inches a minute.
The impoverished neighborhood was one of the areas of the city hit hardest by Katrina's floodwaters and finally had been pumped dry before Hurricane Rita struck.
Throughout Friday morning, water began rising again onto buckled homes, piles of rubble and mud-caked cars that Katrina had covered with up to 20 feet of water.
Sally Forman, an aide to Mayor Ray Nagin, said officials knew the levees were compromised, but they believe that the Ninth Ward is cleared of residents.
"I wouldn't imagine there's one person down there," Forman said.
Mitch Frazier, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said contractors were being brought in Friday morning to repair the new damage. The corps had earlier installed 60-foot sections of metal across some of the city's canals to protect against flooding and storm surges.
Forecasters say anywhere from 3 to 5 inches of rain could fall in New Orleans as Rita passes Friday and Saturday, dangerously close to the 6 inches of rain that Corps officials say the patched levees can withstand.
Another concern is the storm surge accompanying Rita, which could send water rising as much as 3 to 5 feet above high tide.
Already Friday morning, a steady 20 mph wind, with gusts to 35 mph, was blowing, along with steady rains.
Because of uncertain weather conditions from Hurricane Rita, the recovery of bodies was suspended but previous discoveries pushed the death toll from Hurricane Katrina to 841 in Louisiana, and at least 1,078 across the Gulf Coast.
As many as 500,000 people in southwestern Louisiana, many of them already displaced by Hurricane Katrina, were told to evacuate and many jammed roads north to escape.
In New Iberia, Glynn Stevenson, who swam out of his New Orleans house with belongings taped to his body, had just gotten settled into a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency when the call came for him to uproot again.
"It's nothing to get mad about," he said. "Just keep a cool attitude and help your brothers."
As for those who refuse to leave, Gov. Kathleen Blanco advised: "Perhaps they should write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink."
Rita was headed for a Texas landfall but the massive storm threatened southwestern Louisiana as well, with tropical storm-force winds expected by noon and hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or higher by early Saturday. Flash floods were possible as 10 to 15 inches of rain was forecast.
National Guard and medical units were put on standby. Helicopters were being positioned, and search-and-rescue boats from the state wildlife department were staged on high ground on the edge of Rita's projected path. Blanco said she also asked for 15,000 more federal troops.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen said three days worth of food, water and other supplies for 500,000 people are ready and waiting around Louisiana, if needed after Rita.
A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for homes on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, and police said people in the city's Algiers section on the other side of the river would be wise to get out, too. But thousands stayed put.
"I'm sticking it out," said Florida Richardson, who sat on her front porch in Algiers, holding her grandson on her lap. "This house is 85 years old. It's seen a lot of tornadoes and a lot of hurricanes. You can't run from the power of God."
A traffic jam of evacuees extended from Houston and other Texas cities well into Louisiana, with Interstate 10 congested across southern Louisiana.
Billy Landry, a marina manager in Cypremort Point, wasn't going to stay for Rita. He planned to haul himself and thousands of soft-shell crabs to safety.
"Since Katrina, everybody seems a little nervous. They don't want to get pulled from rooftops," he said. .