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New Orleans Prepares For Gustav

Gulf Coast states prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Gustav, after it inflicted floods and landslides on the island of Hispaniola.

Marcy Murray, a New Orleans real estate lawyer, spent Friday planning to leave over the weekend with her husband, two children, their Chihuahua, Bud, and 18-year-old cat, Ophelia. She did not draw up one plan, but three.

"I made hotel reservations in Memphis, which was the closest room I could find," Murray said. "Now if it looks like an extended evacuation, I'm also considering going to my parents' house in Atlanta. I'm also looking at a camp in Mississippi if the traffic is too heavy."

Even in the arena of sports, contingency plans were being used. Tulane University moved its football practices to Jackson, Miss. The New Orleans Saints would relocate their practices to Indianapolis. And in Baton Rouge, the Louisiana State University football team moved its season opener from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. in case the region has to accommodate evacuation traffic.

While the evacuation machinery -- both public and private -- seems to be in much better shape than it was three years ago, flood protection remains a work in progress. The federal government has spent more than $2 billion to shore up the region's vulnerable levee system, but more than $10 billion in protection projects remains under construction or on the drawing board, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The most significant improvement since Katrina has been the construction of massive floodgates at the mouths of New Orleans' three main drainage canals. Unprotected during Katrina, the canals filled with water forced in by a storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain to the north, collapsing the floodwalls that line the canals.

The new floodgates will not only prevent the lake from flowing into the canals, but are designed to pump water into the lake from the canals as they are filled by rain and storm drains, said Maj. Tim Kurgan of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"No floodwater will get into that system," he said. "And once those gates are closed, we can pump water out of there as fast as it comes in."

Work has not started on a floodgate to block water from surging into the huge Industrial Canal, a shipping corridor that cuts through the city's Ninth Ward. An even more ambitious project to close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a ship channel that moves through eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, is years away. All of those areas experienced severe flooding from Katrina and have been the slowest to rebound.

Bush administration officials said the nation's energy infrastructure is better prepared to withstand a major storm in Gulf areas than it was in 2005, and emphasized that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is at a record 90 percent of capacity, with 707 million barrels in storage.

The Gulf Coast accounts for about 25 percent of the nation's oil and 10 percent of its natural gas production. But Energy Department officials said the reserve could release 4.4 million barrels of oil per day, three times the daily production of the Gulf Coast.

"The department is better prepared than ever before to respond to a significant petroleum event," said Kevin M. Kolevar, an assistant energy secretary.

The American Red Cross and other disaster relief charities are mobilizing operations in the Gulf Coast region. Red Cross officials said they are sending about two-thirds of its national disaster fleet to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and is setting up communications networks in the region.

About 3,100 Red Cross volunteers from across the nation will blanket the Gulf Coast this weekend, and the agency said it will be able to serve about 750,000 prepackaged meals and to shelter 500,000 people.

"We're preparing for what we believe could be a major event," said Joe Becker, Red Cross senior vice president of disaster services. "This will be large-scale, certainly the largest we've mounted since Katrina."

Hsu reported from Washington. Staff Writers Dan Eggen and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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