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Louisiana Shivers as Hurricane Shifts

Times Staff Writers

It can be a delicate thing to wish away a storm.

If your prayers are answered, somebody else is going to get hit. Betty Broussard doesn’t want that.

“Oh, no sir, I would never wish this on anyone else,” Broussard, who has an easy smile, said Thursday afternoon as she stuffed her daughter’s minivan with supplies outside a grocery store in this rural stretch of southwest Louisiana.

At the same time, Hurricane Rita was supposed to be a Texas storm. And it would seem, at some point, that Louisiana has suffered enough.

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“We might as well face it. It’s going to land somewhere,” Broussard, 51, said. “And right now, it looks like it’s coming our way.

“We’ve been lucky in Louisiana, lucky for a long time. Not anymore,” she said. “Now we just cross our fingers and hope for the best. That’s all we have left.”

For days, forecasters have tried to determine where the menacing storm would make landfall.

First it looked like Corpus Christi, a beach community in the center of the Texas coast. Then it moved east, to Galveston, the barrier island below Houston. By Thursday evening, Rita’s target was still in Texas -- but not by much.

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Most experts think the storm will hit near Port Arthur, Texas, just west of the Louisiana state line.

Because of its counterclockwise spin combined with forward motion, the most powerful part of a storm is to the northeast of its eye. That means southwest Louisiana could be devastated by Rita the same way coastal communities in Mississippi -- east of Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina made landfall -- were destroyed last month.

Louisiana is tired, its citizens incredulous that the state would be hit by two Category 4 storms in such a short period of time.

“It’s hard to even describe the emotions. It’s paranoia. It’s nervousness,” said Laura Gilchrist, 32, who was preparing to evacuate her home Thursday in Mire, about a 45-minute drive from the coast. “After Katrina, everybody’s just scared to death.”

Gilchrist’s 70-year-old father, who plans to stay behind, was helping her get ready for the journey to a relative’s home in Alabama.

It’s lovebug season in southern Louisiana. This time of year, swarms of the flies fill the air, many of them flying while attached to a mate, hence the name. The flies get smashed regularly on windshields, and Gilchrist’s father, Leroy Lavergne, was wiping off the lovebug residue from her car.

“It does look like it’s headed this way,” Lavergne said of Rita. “And she’s a biggie.”

Caught off-guard as the storm drifted farther northeast than originally projected, Louisiana officials scrambled to move some of their troops.

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Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, head of the military’s response to Katrina, said that 4,000 National Guardsmen would be stationed in southwest Louisiana to provide security, medical care, communications and logistical assistance. Boats also were being repositioned so they would be available for search-and-rescue operations as soon as possible after Rita’s strike. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard, said engineers and security forces also were being deployed outside the “immediate coastal impact area.”

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco requested additional troops for the state. But on Thursday evening, officials at the Pentagon and U.S. Northern Command said the military had spent much of the day trying to determine what types of forces might be needed.

“When you say 15,000 troops, what do you mean?” asked Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. “You have to refine that.”

Blanco said she expected that Rita would “rip much of western Louisiana,” not only along the coastline but in some interior parishes as well.

She said some pockets of the state would see as much as 20 inches of rain, and she suggested that anyone who stays behind should write their Social Security numbers on their arms in indelible ink.

“Rita promises not to diminish,” she said. “Please take heed and go for safe ground.”

In New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin said he was concerned that Rita appeared to be drifting on a path that would take it closer to his beleaguered city.

He said there was a 50% to 60% chance that New Orleans would see winds as strong as 60 mph.

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“What I see worries me,” he said. “Maybe I’m a little paranoid now.”

Officials had to halt the retrieval of bodies in New Orleans -- the state’s death toll from Katrina rose to 832 Thursday -- so they could prepare for Rita.

Nagin acknowledged that few residents had answered officials’ calls to evacuate the city. On Wednesday, just a handful of people sought help in leaving. On Thursday afternoon, a few dozen National Guard troops stood around a hangar where 10 buses were waiting.

“The first thing after Rita, we’ll be back out on the streets coordinating a hasty search-and-rescue operation,” said Col. Ron Mason of the Army’s 35th Division. “But I’m confident the majority of the people are out of the city.”

Federal officials -- stung by criticism that their response to Katrina was slow and inadequate -- were eager to show that this time, they were prepared to help New Orleans. The Navy has five ships in the Gulf of Mexico, including a hospital ship, ready to return to shore once the storm passes.

The rural stretches of southwest Louisiana now in the cross-hairs of the storm are sparsely populated and largely overshadowed by New Orleans, which rests on the southeast corner of the state.

But to locals, the region puts the gumbo in Louisiana. Here, Native American heritage meets French Acadian culture, saltwater meets freshwater, lush wildlife refuges are interrupted by pockets of smokestack industry and the swampy, Southern air is interrupted, on occasion, by menacing storms.

There are some sizable metropolitan areas in the region, including Lake Charles, a city of 72,000 people that has its own symphony and Shakespeare Festival, as well as six dance studios.

But the bulk of the area is characterized by smaller, quirky towns, easygoing, blue-collar places that seem to be in constant celebration of something.

The region bills itself as the “Festival Capital” because of 75 annual celebrations, including a slew of boisterous Mardi Gras parades that many locals consider more authentic than their famous cousin in New Orleans.

Another popular festival, the 12-day-long Contraband Days, celebrates the pirate Jean Lafitte, whose treasure is supposedly buried somewhere along the coast here.

But today, a creeping sense of dread has descended on the region.

“There’s a lot of fear,” said D.A. “Butch” Gautreaux, a state senator from Morgan City, as he stood outside a portion of a strip mall that he owns on the outskirts of his hometown. “We’ve seen what a devastating storm Katrina was, and they are saying that this is going to be a lot worse.”

“People are in panic mode right now,” said Gautreaux’s wife, Marilyn, who manages a card and gift store. “It’s the storm of the century.”

For some, the combination of Katrina and Rita has been too much.

After waiting in a lengthy line for gas in Jennings, La., near Lake Charles, Jason Gibbons shook his head quietly when asked about the state of the state these days. He talked of family trips to seaside communities, of fishing in Louisiana marshlands near Lake Charles. And he wondered what he would find when he got home.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe we should just move -- to another planet.”

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Gold reported from Mire and Gaouette from New Orleans. Times staff writers Susannah Rosenblatt and Mai Tran in Baton Rouge, La., Paul Pringle in New Orleans, Mark Mazzetti and Warren Vieth in Washington, D.C., and Ann M. Simmons in Morgan City contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Southeast Texas (population: 4,452,358) *--* Race: White 43% Latino 33% Black 18% Asian 5% Other 2% *--* *--* Occupation: White collar 62% Blue collar 24% Service/farm 14% Average household income: $66,621 *--* *--* Homes: Own 59% Rent 41% Median value for owner-occupied home: $98,830 *--*

Southwest Louisiana (population: 712,746)

*--* Race: White 71% Black 24% Latino 2% White 71% Asian 1% Other 1% *--* *--* Occupation: White collar 54% Blue collar 29% Service/farm 17% Average household income: $51,020 *--* *--* Homes: Own 72% Rent 28% Median value for owner-occupied home: $85,785 *--*

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.


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