Preparing for Mass Exodus As Gustav Gathers Strength

By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 29, 2008

CHALMETTE, La., Aug. 28 -- Determined to avoid the mistakes made when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, federal and state officials began preparations for massive evacuations if it becomes clear that Tropical Storm Gustav will sweep over the region with the same force as Katrina.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, in New Orleans to meet with Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), said that as of Thursday afternoon, most estimates projected that Gustav, which is expected to strengthen into a hurricane, would strike between Texas and Florida early next week, "with a real possibility of getting an impact in Louisiana."

Authorities cautioned that the worst effects of a major hurricane would be felt as far as 150 miles to the east of landfall, because of the rotation of wind and waves.

"We could anticipate a Category 3 hurricane," Chertoff said, "So we're talking about a very serious storm and one that should be hitting the area perhaps Monday into Tuesday."

About 3,000 National Guard troops were on standby in Louisiana, 5,000 were readying in Texas and about 65,000 were available across the Gulf states, Guard officials said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) issued a disaster declaration, and Jindal and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) pre-declared states of emergency. Chertoff said Jindal and Perry were expected to make evacuation decisions beginning Friday.

Plans call for the evacuation of tourists in New Orleans and of sick, disabled and elderly people in Texas to begin 60 hours before the projected landfall of a major hurricane, to be followed by orders for the general population living in low-lying or flood-prone coastal areas, said R. David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For many residents of the New Orleans area, the memories of Katrina, which devastated the city and killed more than 1,800 people, are still fresh.

In St. Bernard Parish, the community just east of New Orleans where every home was damaged or destroyed, residents were gassing up cars and lining up at Walgreens for prescriptions. The U-Haul store was out of rental trucks.

Gary and Karen Hansen planned to start packing their car Thursday night and had made reservations at a hotel in Baton Rouge, 80 miles north. They intended to leave their home Saturday morning.

"We got wiped out by Katrina -- everything I own," said Gary Hansen, a refinery worker. "Three years later, the same thing may happen. It's a little discouraging."

Officials in Louisiana executed contracts to use 700 school buses in support of commercial buses to evacuate people without cars, and began preparing to convert all lanes on major highways to direct traffic away from the coast if necessary.

New Orleans officials were prepared to order the evacuation of all 325,000 city residents, providing transportation for 30,000 people.

"Right now, all the models say it is coming toward us," Nagin told PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." "Anything above a Category 2 storm, we're evacuating everybody out of the city, and we have buses, trains and planes lined up to accomplish that."

President Bush has been receiving regular updates on the approaching storm from officials at the Homeland Security Department and FEMA, White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

"He's involved, engaged, and getting briefings and working to make sure that the federal assistance is there, but that obviously state and local authorities have responsibilities," Perino said. "And by all accounts and purposes, they are following through on those."

Nagin left the Democratic convention in Denver early, and Jindal has canceled plans to attend the GOP convention.

Although U.S. officials emphasized that billions of dollars have been spent to make the New Orleans levee system stronger than it was in 2005 -- including improvements to flood walls, pumping stations and navigation canals -- construction was not set to be completed until 2011, leaving a possibility of significant flooding there.

Bill Irwin, program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, warned of "higher-risk areas," including the Inner Harbor Navigation Channel and neighborhoods hit hardest by Katrina, including the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, St. Bernard Parish, and the east and west banks of New Orleans.

Trailers are another concern. About 14,000 remain occupied by Katrina survivors in Louisiana and Mississippi, most on the private property of homeowners who are rebuilding houses.

Energy companies began moving personnel off some of the more than 4,000 oil and gas rigs across the Gulf on Wednesday, recalling how 2005 storms destroyed more than 100 platforms, damaged pipelines, flooded coastal refineries and curtailed production for months.

The Associated Press reported that weather research firm Planalytics predicted that as much as 80 percent of oil and gas production in the Gulf, which accounts for about one-fourth of the nation's total production, could be shut down as a precaution if Gustav enters the region as a major storm.

Gustav struck Jamaica on Thursday, two days after it slammed into Haiti as a Category 1 hurricane. It triggered massive flooding and landslides that killed at least 59 people in Haiti and eight more in neighboring Dominican Republic.

After it clears the Jamaican coast, the storm is expected to again become a hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center. Another tropical storm, Hanna, has formed farther east in the Atlantic Ocean. It was too early to predict whether it could threaten the United States.

Friday is the third anniversary of Katrina, which blasted through inadequate levees, flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and drove tens of thousands of residents from the city permanently.

Hsu reported from Washington. Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company