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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Katrina Leaves Death and Destruction in Its Wake

GULFPORT, Mississippi -- As dawn broke over the ravaged Gulf of Mexico coast Tuesday, rescuers in boats and helicopters furiously searched for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The governor said the death toll in one Mississippi county alone could be as high as 80.

"The devastation down there is just enormous," Governor Haley Barbour said on NBC's "Today" show, the morning after Katrina howled ashore with winds of 233 kilometers per hour.

Barbour said there were unconfirmed reports of up to 80 deaths in Harrison County, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi, and that the number was likely to rise.

"We know that there is a lot of the coast that we have not been able to get to," the governor said. "I hate to say it, but it looks like it is a very bad disaster in terms of human life."

Tree trunks, downed power lines and trees and chunks of broken concrete in the streets hampered rescue efforts. Swirling water in many areas contained hidden dangers. Crews worked to clear highways. Along one Mississippi highway, motorists themselves used chainsaws to remove trees blocking the road. More than 1,600 Mississippi National Guardsmen were activated, and the Alabama Guard planned to send two battalions to Mississippi.

Late Monday, Harrison County emergency operations center spokesman Jim Pollard said that about 50 people had died in the county, with some 30 of the dead at a beach-side apartment complex in Biloxi. Three other people were killed by falling trees in Mississippi, and two died in a traffic accident in Alabama, authorities said. In Louisiana, officials said people in some swamped neighborhoods were feared dead, but gave no immediate numbers.

The death toll does not include the 11 deaths in South Florida from when a much-weaker Katrina first hit land last week.

In New Orleans, residents who had ridden out the brunt of Katrina faced a second, more insidious threat, as two levee breaches sent water from Lake Pontchartrain coursing through city streets Tuesday.

"I've never encountered anything like it in my life. It just kept rising and rising and rising," said Bryan Vernon, who spent three hours on his roof, screaming over howling winds for someone to save him and his fiancee.

Colonel Rich Wagenaar of the Army Corps of Engineers said a breach in the eastern part of the city was causing flooding and "significant evacuations" in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. He did not know how many people were affected.

Authorities said there was also a levee breach in the western part of the city that began Monday afternoon and may have grown overnight.

Across the Gulf Coast, people were rescued as they clung to rooftops, hundreds of trees were uprooted and sailboats were flung about like toys when Katrina crashed ashore in what could become the most expensive storm in U.S. history.

The hurricane knocked out power to more than 1 million people from Louisiana to Florida, and authorities said that it could be two months before electricity was restored to everyone.

According to preliminary assessments by AIR Worldwide Corp., a risk assessment company, the insurance industry faces as much as $26 billion in claims from Katrina.

Mississippi's economy was dealt a blow that could run into the millions, as the storm shuttered the flashy casinos that dot its coast. The governor said that emergency officials had reports of water reaching the third floors of some casinos.

After striking the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane, Katrina was soon downgraded to a tropical storm as it passed through eastern Mississippi. Winds early Tuesday were still a dangerous 97 kilometers per hour. Forecasters said that as the storm moved north over the next few days, it might spawn tornadoes over the Southeast and swamp the Tennessee and Ohio valleys with rain.

A water main broke in New Orleans, making it unsafe to drink the city's water without first boiling it. And police made several arrests for looting.

Gulfport Fire Chief Pat Sullivan estimated that 75 percent of buildings in Gulfport had major roof damage, "if they have a roof left at all."

 President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to U.S. President George W. Bush over the devastation.

"Please accept my sincere words of sympathy in connection with the natural disaster that has struck the United States. I know that Hurricane Katrina ... has caused human casualties, left tens of thousands of Americans without homes and caused significant economic losses in the region," Putin said in the message, according to his press service.

Putin said Russia sympathized with "Americans who have met face to face with a catastrophe of a colossal scale" and was prepared to provide help if requested.

n Bush will cut short his vacation in Texas to return to Washington on Wednesday to help monitor federal efforts to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina, the White House said Tuesday.