By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 1, 2008
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31 -- The Gulf Coast braced Sunday for Hurricane Gustav, a storm that officials fear could devastate coastal Louisiana and parts of New Orleans that were largely spared from Hurricane Katrina's onslaught three years ago.
With landfall anticipated before midday Monday, Gustav picked up speed but lost some of its strength in the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters said the changes could weaken the storm's punch, and they expressed optimism that the predictions of flooding in the city might not come to pass. Still, they cautioned that Gustav's path and projected 115-mph winds could fluctuate, and they issued a hurricane warning from southeastern Texas to the Alabama-Florida border.
Gustav is a "big, ugly storm," said New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D), who imposed a mandatory evacuation notice and a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Anyone caught outside after dark would be arrested, he added.
On its current path, Gustav will pass west of the city, creating a storm surge that threatens to overtop the fragile levee system in that part of New Orleans that held fast during Katrina. Katrina roared through east of New Orleans in 2005, breaching floodwalls and inundating the eastern part of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward.
Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said 1.9 million Louisianans -- 95 percent of the state's coastal residents -- have evacuated. Mississippi and Alabama also issued mandatory evacuation orders for coastal areas. About 10,000 older residents and people without transportation were evacuated from Texas's coastal areas, and Gov. Rick Perry (R) said the state was prepared to receive 45,000 evacuees from Louisiana.
Even before it hit, Gustav appeared to have claimed its first victims. Officials cited unconfirmed reports that three critically ill patients died while being evacuated from Louisiana hospitals.
About 80 percent of oil production in the gulf had been shut down as companies pulled personnel from the offshore rigs that dot the waters off Louisiana and Texas, many of them lying directly in the storm's path. Analysts said the shutdown and damage to oil facilities could cause retail gasoline prices to jump.
President Bush, who was criticized for what some called his lackluster response to Katrina, met Sunday with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said he would travel to Texas on Monday to visit the state's Emergency Operations Center in Austin and to view relief efforts in San Antonio.
As hundreds of thousands fled the oncoming storm, highways jammed and streets emptied across the Gulf Coast. Hotels and other businesses closed. Police and National Guard units patrolled the streets of cities throughout coastal Louisiana. In the New Orleans area, all lanes of highways were used for outbound traffic as people sought to escape the hurricane. The process appeared to be going smoothly, and Nagin said the highways would return to normal operation by midnight Sunday.
At 11 p.m. Eastern time Sunday, Gustav was centered about 220 miles southeast of New Orleans and moving northwest at about 16 mph.
Earlier in the day, Rusty Mullin, his girlfriend and her son were sitting at a New Orleans train station waiting to head home to Madison, Ala. They had been vacationing in the city but were kicked out of their hotel Sunday morning and stranded with no means of transportation.
"There's a train leaving between 10 and 11 today, and we're getting on that train," Mullin said. "I don't like taking 'no' for an answer."
Some evacuees did not know where they would go, just so long as they left New Orleans. "I just go wherever the bus goes," Myrna Campbell, 71, a teacher, said as she packed her cat, Missy, into a plastic crate.
In addition to high wind, a major concern is flooding in the West Bank neighborhood of New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish, one of several parishes expected to take the brunt of Gustav's force.
"We don't have homes that were built to withstand this kind of storm," said Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, which has a population of 431,000.
The government office building on the eastern side of Jefferson Parish, which straddles the Mississippi, had become an emergency operations center for police, firefighters, National Guard troops and others helping residents board large chartered buses to get out of town.
"They say it is going to be pretty bad, and I don't drive so well," said Sandra Gibson, 48, a grocery store clerk. She cried as she and her 17-year-old daughter, Victoria, carried two tote bags filled with snacks and a few clothes from their truck to the white tents where workers helped load them on buses.
"The hurricane is bad enough, so I don't want to also get stranded and lost trying to drive myself out," Gibson said. "I just want to go and be safe."
Unlike with Katrina, when thousands suffered in the heat and squalor of the Superdome, New Orleans has announced that it will not operate any "shelters of last resort" and wanted everyone out of the city. Anyone who remains will be on their own, Nagin warned Sunday.
Evacuation volunteers said this effort was better run than the effort before Katrina.
"It's definitely more organized, and they're leaving a lot sooner," said Norman Pineda, a local volunteer with the American Red Cross who worked Sunday at the city train station. "It's more calm than last time."
Animals were also receiving more attention than during Katrina, when pet lovers were horrified by televised images of starving animals in the empty and flooded streets of New Orleans.
At the train station, dozens of volunteers boarded stray animals and the pets of emergency personnel who are staying in the city. Dogs were placed in giant plastic crates, and those with owners will be reunited with them at emergency shelters in north Louisiana. "The pets will be okay," said Scotlund Haisley, senior director for emergency services at the Humane Society of the United States. "The lessons learned from Katrina are working. Does that mean there will be animals left behind? Yes. But these animals will be okay."
For days, federal and local officials have sought to contrast their preparations for Gustav with the meager planning and interagency bickering that marred the Katrina response. About 1,800 died during and after the storm, and the Gulf Coast has yet to recover.
Federal and local relief officials began preparations for the storm last week, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff flew to Louisiana on Sunday.
Bush said he would not travel to Louisiana on Monday because he did not want his visit to impede rescue personnel, but he expected to visit the state "as soon as conditions permit."
He expressed confidence in the readiness of federal and local officials. "There's a lot of preparations that have gone in anticipation of this storm," he said.
Even with better preparations, a storm the size of Gustav will cause economic dislocations.
With about 40 percent of U.S. oil-refining capacity located on or near the Gulf Coast, the storm threatened to cause disruptions in petroleum product supplies for the next few days and, if damage is done, beyond.
More than 1 million barrels a day in oil production has been shut down in anticipation of the storm. That equals more than two-thirds of U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia this year.
Motiva, a joint venture of Shell Oil and Saudi Aramco, closed down two refineries and was running another at "minimum rates"; it said it would keep only emergency staff on duty. Shell said it had closed two of its three chemical plants in the area.
About a quarter of U.S. crude oil production and an eighth of its natural gas production comes from the Gulf of Mexico, and oil experts were warning of damage to supplies.
"You're probably talking about, short-term, six or seven days of pretty significant shut-ins with regard to natural gas and crude oil," said Kenneth B. Medlock III, an energy fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute, who noted that about 80 percent of the gulf's 1.3 million-barrel-a-day crude oil production had been shut down.
He said that even without damage to oil facilities, storm-related power outages at refineries could disrupt supplies for several days.
The long boulevards of downtown New Orleans and the narrow residential streets of the Lower Ninth Ward were eerily empty Sunday. For blocks and blocks, the only signs of life were city police officers posted on corners, accompanied by Louisiana National Guard troops wearing camouflage and carrying assault rifles.
"We're just here to help people evacuate," said a guardsman on North Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward in the late afternoon. But it looked as though that work had been completed hours earlier.
Hsu reported from Washington. Staff writers Dana Hedgpeth, Philip Rucker and David Montgomery on the Gulf Coast and Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.