New Orleans braces again, 3 years later

Times Staff Writer

Fear and foreboding gripped this still-mending city Thursday as a potential Category 3 hurricane whirled toward the Gulf Coast on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's three-year anniversary.

Tropical Storm Gustav, which was lashing Jamaica after Haitian officials said it had killed 51 people there, was still almost five days away from the Crescent City, according to the National Hurricane Center. Projections varied greatly, putting its path anywhere from the Florida panhandle to southeastern Texas by Tuesday.

But Louisiana seemed the most likely place for Gustav to make landfall, and politicians here were acting decisively to prepare for the worst -- a sharp contrast from the response to Katrina, which was widely criticized as disorganized and sluggish. New Orleans avoided a direct hit from Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, but flooding after it came ashore led to levee breaks that inundated four-fifths of the city, killing more than 1,500 people in Louisiana.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin left the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday and announced that he would order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans if a Category 3 storm got within 60 hours of his city. Meteorologists predict Gustav will swell into a Category 3 hurricane, defined as a storm with winds between 111 mph and 130 mph.

"Ladies and gentlemen, in my estimation I feel we are ready for this threat," Nagin said Thursday during a City Hall news conference. He added that he did not expect an evacuation until Saturday.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency, activated the National Guard and triggered a government contract that allowed him to bring up to 700 buses to the hurricane zone to help with evacuations. The rising GOP star also said he was prepared to skip next week's Republican National Convention, where he is scheduled to speak.

"We have to take this storm seriously," Jindal said during a news conference in the capital, Baton Rouge. He added that state and federal authorities would ensure no looting occurred following an evacuation. "We want people to know their property will be safe."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison also traveled to Louisiana on Thursday to coordinate disaster response. Chertoff said during a news conference with Jindal that search-and-rescue teams and other emergency personnel were already mobilizing.

Officials' biggest fear by far was a direct hit to New Orleans, where post-Katrina rebuilding remains a work in progress. Roughly two-thirds of the population has returned and countless homeowners have used their savings to fix up their properties. But many homes still lie in disrepair, and the byzantine system of canals, pumps and levees that is supposed to protect the city from flooding remains incomplete.

"Although we have made strong strides in rebuilding our infrastructure, the levees have not been fully repaired and we have an $800-million budget gap to complete our sewage and water systems," Nagin said earlier in a statement.

Tourists nonchalantly strolled through the French Quarter on Thursday afternoon, and restaurants were filled with diners eating shrimp po' boys and catfish almondine as usual. But the city canceled some of the events it had planned for the third anniversary of Katrina, including a jazz funeral, and in neighborhoods hit hard by Katrina locals were apprehensively watching the Weather Channel.

A report published Thursday found that almost half of the deaths from Hurricane Katrina were people 75 or older, and drowning was the leading cause. Elderly residents may have disregarded warnings, feared abandoning their homes to possible looting, or simply didn't want to leave familiar surroundings, according to the study, which was published online and will appear in the October print edition of the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

Everyone was making plans to get out of town this time -- so much so that hotel rooms were already impossible to find in Baton Rouge. Some New Orleanians reported having to search as far as Arkansas to find emergency lodging.

"I'm going to tell you right now -- this time I'll be going," said Tom Allen, 46, as he helped rebuild a house on a concrete slab in the Lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Katrina that is still largely vacant. Last time, Allen admitted, he thought he could brave it out. He had to rescue his elderly neighbors when floodwaters rose and wound up with thousands of others inside the fetid Louisiana Superdome.

"No use lyin' to you: I've got no faith in these levees," added Allen's work partner, Leonard Jacobs, 75, who had recently rebuilt his own home in the neighborhood. "We're in a soup bowl right here."

The threat of Gustav had already caused oil companies to evacuate more than 1,300 workers from offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, driving the price of crude past $120 a barrel by Thursday afternoon. Another threat, Tropical Storm Hanna, also emerged Thursday, posing a potential threat to the Southeastern U.S.

In Chalmette, a city outside New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish that was also overwhelmed by floodwaters three years ago, neighbors watched Gustav's motions with squeamish stomachs.

A year ago, much of the area was still empty, and many vowed they would not return. There were still a fair number of damaged homes, including one still shrouded with a big blue roof tarp, but many residents had decided to rebuild after all, discovering that they missed the close-knit world of "Da Parish."

Lonney Sciortino leaned over his pickup truck, talking to neighbor Frank Lewis about how he was planning to take a gun with him during the evacuation, in case chaos ensued on the highway.

Both thought about boarding up their homes before deciding there was no use. Chalmette's potential problem, they agreed, would be flooding from failing levees, which is what inundated homes with more than 7 feet of water here after Katrina and after Hurricane Betsy four decades before.

"A lot of people were proud they rebuilt here a few days ago, but right now, it's a different mood," said Sciortino, 57, who lamented that his children, who used to live down the street, were now living in Gulfport, Miss., and Abita Springs, La. "If we get hit here one more time, we're done. Chalmette will be abandoned."

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miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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