New Orleans With Gustav approaching hurricane strength and showing no signs of veering off a track to slam into the Gulf Coast, authorities across the region began laying the groundwork Thursday to get the sick, elderly and poor away from the shoreline.
The first batch of 700 buses that could ferry residents inland were being sent to a staging area near New Orleans, and officials in Mississippi were trying to decide when to move Katrina-battered residents along the coast who were still living in temporary homes, including trailers vulnerable to high wind.
The planning for a potential evacuation is part of a massive outline drafted after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore three years ago, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and stranding thousands who couldn't get out in time. As the region prepared to mark the storm's anniversary today, officials expressed confidence those blueprints made them ready for Gustav.
"There are a lot of things that are different between now and what we faced in 2005 when Katrina came ashore," said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was flying to Louisiana to meet with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
With Gustav still several days away, authorities cautioned that no plans were set in stone, and had not yet called for residents to leave. Projections showed the storm arriving early next week as a Category 3 storm, with winds of 111 mph or greater, anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to eastern Texas. But forecasts are extremely tentative several days out, and the storm could change course and strength.
At a news conference Thursday, Nagin said an evacuation order was likely in the coming days. Jindal told a later news conference that residents in areas further south could be told to leave starting today.
Should officials order an evacuation, police and firefighters will drive through New Orleans neighborhoods, with bull horns, to alert residents. City officials have said they won't force people to leave but those who stay will be assuming all risks and responsibilities.
In a conference call between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local officials, Harvey Johnson, FEMA's deputy administrator, cautioned that officials needed to stick to protocols.
"It's very, very important that we play the way we practiced and trained over the last year and a half," he said.
Governors in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas pre-declared states of emergency in an attempt to build a foundation for federal assistance. Federal officials said resources and personnel to provide post-storm aid were pouring into the Gulf Coast states from other parts of the country Thursday.
Preparing for crisis
The American Red Cross was checking on shelters, deploying trucks that could deliver food, and shipping cots, blankets and hygiene kits into the region. Meanwhile, New Orleans-era hospitals stocked up on food, medicine, water and diesel fuel while sending the most fragile patients further inland.
Louisiana's corrections department planned to start moving 9,000 inmates away from coastal areas today and into lockups further north, Jindal said.
Batteries, bottled water, and other storm supplies were selling briskly, and people were filling up at gas stations. National Guard troops were readying in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Hotels in the region reported being booked solid by coastal residents planning ahead.
Many residents found themselves repeating the same things in the days before Katrina. The New Orleans Saints were set to play the Miami Dolphins in the team's final NFL preseason game Thursday night; the Saints played their final game of the 2005 preseason just three days before Katrina.
Amid all the preparations, the city still planned to recognize the anniversary. New Orleans planned to hold a "symbolic" burial service for unidentified Katrina victims and a bell-ringing to mark that storm's three-year anniversary today.
The city said it is prepared to move 30,000 residents in an evacuation; estimates put the city's present population between 310,000 to 340,000 people. Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome, a plan designed to encourage residents to leave.