/ 29 August 2008

Gustav looms on Katrina anniversary

The solemn ceremonies for the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Friday for the most part were blown away by Tropical Storm Gustav, which threatens to become a hurricane and poses the biggest threat to New Orleans since the killer 2005 storm.

An early-morning symbolic burial service in honour of the unclaimed bodies left behind by Katrina, and a bell-ringing service scheduled for 2.38pm GMT) — when the first levee broke, inundating the city — were the only events that remained on what would have been a day of remembrance of the devastating storm.

Instead, preparations were under way in the event Gustav strikes early next week. The National Guard was scheduled to begin convoying supplies and troops into New Orleans on Friday, while some nursing homes and hospitals planned to start moving patients further inland and the state began moving 9 000 inmates from coastal lock-ups.

Gustav was blamed on Thursday for at least 68 deaths in the Caribbean, and United STates forecasters said it could hit New Orleans and Gulf of Mexico oil fields as a potentially powerful hurricane next week.

An evacuation order for New Orleans was likely, mayor Ray Nagin said, but not before Saturday. Meanwhile, residents of areas further south could be told to leave starting on Friday, Governor Bobby Jindal said.

Federal, state and local officials expressed confidence that plans put in place since Katrina would protect residents. ”Ladies and gentlemen, in my estimation, I think we’re ready for this threat,” Nagin told a news conference on Thursday.

The state activated 3 000 Guardsmen on Wednesday and another 2 000 on Thursday, Jindal said. He has ordered 1 500 of them to be in New Orleans on Friday to beef up the 360 Guardsmen who have been in the city since Katrina to help police the city.

And as far away as New York City, ambulance companies were preparing to send trucks and crews down to the Gulf Coast. Citywide Mobile Response Corp spokesperson Isaac Newman said his company was dispatching five ambulances along with 15 crew members early on Friday from its headquarters in the Bronx.

Projections showed Gustav arriving early next week as a category-three storm, with winds of 179km/h 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.

Mississippi and Louisiana also were beginning preparations to switch interstate lanes so that all traffic would flow north, in the direction an evacuation would follow.

Nagin said people still living in the small trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina should take immediate steps to plan evacuations.

If an evacuation was ordered, the city would also put a curfew in place, Nagin said. Anyone who ignored the evacuation order and was on the streets after curfew would be arrested, he said.

The city said it is prepared to move 30 000 residents in an evacuation. Estimates put the city’s current population between 310 000 and 340 000 people. There were about 454 000 here before Katrina hit.

Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome; in fact, no shelter at all is planned for the city, which will use buses to pick up residents unable to leave on their own and ferry them to a staging area where they will be moved to shelters in northern Louisiana.

The first 150 of 700 buses to move residents inland arrived at a staging area near New Orleans on Thursday, and officials in Mississippi were trying to decide when to move Katrina-battered residents along the coast who were still living in temporary homes.

The planning for a potential evacuation is part of a massive outline drafted after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore three years ago, flooding 80% of New Orleans and stranding thousands who could not get out in time. Officials expressed confidence those blueprints made them ready for Gustav.

”What you’re going to see is the product of three years of planning, training and exercising at all levels of government, starting with the local and the state level and leading up to the federal level,” United States Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told ABC television’s Good Morning America on Friday from New Orleans. ”So we’re clearly better prepared.”

During Hurricane Katrina, Jindal said more than one million people were evacuated. But, he said, if the state needed to evacuate residents in both south-west and south-east Louisiana, the number could be twice that.

Jindal stressed that is just an estimate because much depends on the storm’s track, and intensity and officials hoped to know more early on Friday.

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 on Thursday. Batteries, bottled water, and other storm supplies were selling briskly, and people were filling up at petrol stations, worried of spikes in prices and a lack of supply later in the weekend.

But in Alabama, some tourists and residents were taking a wait-and-see attitude, more focused on the Labor Day holiday weekend ahead.

”We plan to sit in a bar and watch the whole thing,” joked Greg Lee, a tourist from Clarksville, Tennessee, who was planning to stay with his family at their beach house at Fort Morgan, near Gulf Shores. — Sapa-AP