Midday Update: Calif. wildfires may worsen; heavy rains flood New Orleans; shuttle launches successfully

Destruction from California wildfires may worsen

SAN DIEGO — Thousands more residents were ordered to evacuate their homes Tuesday, bringing the number of people chased away by the wind-whipped flames that have engulfed Southern California to at least 270,000.

The dozen wildfires have burned more than 700 homes and set 245,957 acres — 384 square miles — ablaze, and the destruction may only be the start for the region. Tuesday’s forecast called for hotter temperatures and more explosive Santa Ana gusts.

The blazes bedeviled firefighters as walls of flame whipped from mountain passes to the edges of the state’s celebrated coastline, spreading so quickly that even hotels serving as temporary shelters for evacuees had to be evacuated.

As the fires spread, most out of control, smaller blazes were merging into larger, more fearsome ones. Evacuations were being announced in one community after another as firefighters found themselves overwhelmed by gale-force Santa Ana winds, some gusting to 70 mph.

As dawn broke, authorities issued a new round of mandatory evacuations to residents in parts of San Diego County. About 3,800 homes were told to evacuate in Wildcat Canyon and Multh Valley, and another 1,800 in North Jamul and Indian Springs. State officials warned that the total estimate of evacuees in the region could rise, because officials were still working to determine how many people had fled.

At Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, about 40 aircraft that included F-18 fighter jets, C-130 cargo planes and Marine helicopters were evacuated to other bases in California and Arizona.

President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. The wildfires claimed one life, in San Diego County, and injured 42. At least 16 of the injured were firefighters.

Fire crews and fleeing residents described desperate conditions that were sure to get worse. Temperatures across Southern California were about 10 degrees above average and were expected to approach 100 degrees Tuesday in Orange and San Diego counties.

The fires were exploding and shooting embers in all directions, preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines and severely limiting aerial bombardment.

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Heavy rains hit New Orleans, flood areas just recently coming back from Katrina damage

NEW ORLEANS — The deluge of rain that flooded streets around New Orleans was predicted to ease Tuesday, a day after the downpours disrupted businesses, closed schools and swamped areas still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Only a few showers were in the forecast.

‘‘The heavy rains have passed by,’’ National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Vasilj said.

After more than 8 inches of rain drenched the city Monday, Mayor Ray Nagin shut City Hall early and schools across the city closed. Waist-high water in parts of eastern New Orleans soaked businesses, some of which had recently reopened after being damaged by Katrina in 2005.

The city’s drainage pumps all worked; they just couldn’t keep up with the intense rainfall, emergency preparedness officials told the Times-Picayune.

The pumps can handle up to 1 inch of rain in the first hour and a half-inch an hour after that, but some areas got more than two inches of rain in an hour, said Robert Jackson, a spokesman for the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board.

Rough rainfall estimates from 3 p.m. Monday to 7 a.m. Tuesday ranged from 5 inches in Kenner and New Orleans East to nearly 9 in central Jefferson Parish, Vasilj said.

A few rivers north of Lake Pontchartrain, the 22-mile-wide lake that forms New Orleans’ northern border, were brimming, and might flood some low-lying areas in St. Tammany Parish and two counties across the state line in Mississippi, Vasilj said. Showers were predicted through Thursday.

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NASA blasts off on formidable space station construction mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven rocketed away Tuesday in pursuit of the international space station, where a formidable construction job awaits them.

Discovery blasted off at 11:38 a.m., carrying up a giant Tinkertoy-type link that must be installed at the space station before European and Japanese laboratories can arrive.

Despite a forecast calling for rain right at launch time, the weather ended up cooperating. And a chunk of ice on plumbing between the external fuel tank and Discovery — 4 inches by 1 inches — was deemed too small by NASA to pose a serious launch hazard. It appeared to be melting as the countdown entered its final minutes.

Launch director Mike Leinbach wished the crew good luck and Godspeed just before liftoff.

‘‘We’re ready to take Harmony to her new home,’’ replied commander Pamela Melroy, referring to the new space station compartment aboard Discovery.

Discovery’s fuel tank was modified following the last mission to prevent dangerous ice buildup from the super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen, and reduce the potential for launch debris. The patch of ice that had NASA scrambling less than two hours before launch cropped up on a pipe that carries the hydrogen from the tank into the shuttle.

The shuttle wings, however, were not altered in any way, even though a safety engineering group pressed for a delay because of concern over three panels with possible flaws.

What we're working on

- Ed Grisamore writes about a big man who has taken in some little friends. Come back Wednesday morning to read all about it.- A meeting is being held in Jones County tonight with the Georgia DOT to get public input about future transportation needs in Jones, Monroe and Butts counties.- Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor has obtained restraining order against a Hawkinsville woman.

- Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.