Gustav could test New Orleans anew

Plans laid for possible evacuation

Reginald Lee cut the grass yesterday around flags representing victims of Katrina at a cemetery in New Orleans. Forecasters said Gustav could hit Monday. Reginald Lee cut the grass yesterday around flags representing victims of Katrina at a cemetery in New Orleans. Forecasters said Gustav could hit Monday. (Bill Haber/ Associated Press)
By Michael Kunzelman and Tamara Lush
Associated Press / August 28, 2008
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NEW ORLEANS - As Hurricane Katrina's third anniversary approached, nervous New Orleans officials watched yesterday as another storm threatened to test everything the city has rebuilt, and the city made preliminary plans to evacuate people, pets, and hospital patients in an attempt to avoid Katrina-style chaos.

Forecasters warned that Gustav could grow into a dangerous Category 3 hurricane in the next several days and hit along a swath of the Gulf Coast from the Florida panhandle to Texas - with New Orleans smack in the middle.

Taking no chances, city officials began preliminary planning to evacuate and lock down the city in hopes of avoiding the catastrophe that followed the 2005 storm. Mayor C. Ray Nagin left the Democratic National Convention in Denver to return home for the preparations. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal yesterday declared a state of emergency in advance of Gustav and activated the National Guard.

If a Category 3 or stronger hurricane is expected to hit the city within 60 hours, New Orleans plans to institute a mandatory evacuation. Unlike Katrina, there would be no massive shelter at the Superdome. Instead, the state has arranged for buses and trains to take people to safety.

It was unclear what would happen to stragglers. Jerry Sneed, the city's emergency preparedness director, said officials are ready to move about 30,000 people. Nearly 8,000 people had signed up for transportation help by late yesterday.

At a suburban Lowe's store, employees said portable generators, gasoline cans, bottled water, and batteries were selling briskly. Hotels across south Louisiana reported taking many reservations as coastal residents looked inland for possible refuge.

Steve Weaver, 82, and his wife stayed for Katrina - and were plucked off the roof of their house by a Coast Guard helicopter. This time, Weaver has no inclination to ride out the storm.

"Everybody learned a lesson about staying, so the highways will be twice as packed this time," Weaver said.

Katrina struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, and its storm surge overwhelmed the levees that protect the city. Eighty percent of the city was flooded.

Though pockets of New Orleans are well on the way to recovery, many neighborhoods have struggled. Many residents still live in temporary trailers, and shuttered homes still bear the black "X" that was painted to help rescue teams looking for the dead.

Many people never returned, and the city's population is now 310,000, roughly two-thirds what it was before the storm.

Since the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars to improve the levee system, but because of two quiet hurricane seasons, the flood walls have never been tested.

Floodgates have been installed on drainage canals to stop any storm surge from entering the city, and levees have been raised and in many places strengthened with concrete. But they are not built to withstand a storm stronger than Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane. Gustav formed Monday and roared ashore Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane near the southern Haitian city of Jacmel with top winds near 90 mph, toppling palm trees and flooding the city's Victorian buildings.

The storm triggered flooding and landslides that killed 23 people in Haiti. . It weakened into a tropical storm and appeared headed for Cuba, though it is likely to grow stronger in the coming days by drawing energy from warm, open water.

Scientists cautioned that the storm's track and intensity were difficult to predict several days in advance.

But in New Orleans, there was little else to do except prepare as if it were Katrina. The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was set to begin moving animals in shelters to Baton Rouge today, and more would go to Texas shelters tomorrow and Saturday.

"We definitely don't want to wait until Saturday or Sunday to decide what to do," said Ana Zorrilla, director of the pet rescue group.

In Grand Isle, tractor loads of dirt and clay mud were being hauled in to fill portions of the levee system damaged by Hurricane Katrina, said Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle. The coastal community south of New Orleans historically is one of the first to evacuate when tropical weather threatens and was hard-hit by Katrina.

"I couldn't sleep last night," Carmardelle said. "We just came back from so much."

Emergency preparations also were under way along Mississippi's coast. The eye of Hurricane Katrina pushed ashore near the small towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Miss. Along the 70-mile coastline, roughly 65,000 homes were destroyed, and thousands of businesses and hulking casino barges were wiped out.

"We don't need anything of this magnitude to come here," said Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway. "Katrina just devastated us."

Many residents hadn't yet made a decision about leaving. Lawson "Sonny" Brannan, a construction company owner, was busy renovating a client's home yesterday, just blocks from where a levee was breached in the Lakeview neighborhood. A wall of water up to 15 feet deep wiped out the home.

Brannan calmly went about his business.

"I'm not going to worry about it until I see it in the Gulf," he said. "Then I'll make my decisions."

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