With the latest forecasts predicting that Hurricane Gustav could strike New Orleans as soon as Labor Day, city leaders warned Friday that anyone who failed to evacuate would find no government-provided shelter.
Authorities said they planned to use more than 700 buses to evacuate up to 30,000 people today, including the sick and elderly, who have no other means of transportation. The “city-assisted” evacuation is to be followed by a mandatory evacuation order over the weekend, depending on the storm’s progress.
“This is a very serious matter,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin told reporters Friday -- three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina struck, killing about 1,600 people here and producing chaos amid poorly planned and badly executed emergency efforts.
“I’m encouraging all citizens to start to make plans to evacuate the city over the next couple of days,” Nagin said.
Any of the city’s 310,000 residents who stay behind must assume “all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones,” said New Orleans’ emergency preparedness director, Jerry Sneed.
Shelters are being set up in northern Louisiana and possibly in neighboring states, but not in New Orleans, officials said.
The warnings came several hours after a horse-drawn carriage brought the last seven unclaimed bodies of Katrina victims to a cemetery for burial as part of the city’s ceremonies marking the third anniversary of the disaster. On Thursday, 78 unclaimed bodies were buried as officials braced for the coming storm.
Earlier Friday, some hurricane models showed that Gustav might track west of New Orleans. But late Friday, when updated forecasts predicted at least an indirect hit, officials launched the evacuation plans.
The National Hurricane Center said Gustav could grow into a Category 3 hurricane by the time it reached the mainland, with winds exceeding 111 miles per hour. As a Category 1, with sustained winds above 74 mph, the storm had killed 71 people in the Caribbean. By Friday night, it was 90 miles east of Grand Cayman, with sustained winds of 80 mph.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Hanna was projected to curl westward into the Bahamas by early next week. As of Friday, its sustained winds approached 50 mph.
Beginning at 8 a.m. today, buses at 17 pickup points will begin evacuating New Orleans residents to shelters. Trains will take some evacuees to Memphis, Tenn., officials said. The goal was to evacuate all 30,000 vulnerable residents in 24 hours.
Police and firefighters will fan out to spread word of the evacuation. Officials said they would give city-assisted evacuees bar-coded I.D. bracelets to keep track of them. In Katrina’s aftermath, some residents spent weeks trying to locate family members who had evacuated.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he had summoned 2,000 National Guard members, 1,750 of whom were in or near New Orleans by late Friday. The troops will help police secure the homes and property of evacuees, he said.
Major arteries in and out of New Orleans will be made one-way, with all traffic headed inland, probably beginning Sunday, Jindal said. Trucks will be brought in to transport pets, he said. Officials learned from Katrina, when some residents refused to evacuate because they did not want to abandon their pets.
Jindal said he had coordinated with governors of neighboring states to provide extra shelter beds.
Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, people living in cottages or trailers from Katrina were told to evacuate.
“We’re praying for the best and preparing for the worst,” Jindal said.
Friday afternoon, many residents moved with serious purpose, buying groceries, boarding up homes, and clogging highways out of town. But with Gustav’s predicted landfall three days away, there was time to prepare without panic.
In the French Quarter, tourists walked around with beers in hand. Louisiana State University’s opening football game today was moved up several hours, to 10 a.m., so that fan traffic wouldn’t interfere with evacuations.
On an Uptown side street dotted with empty lots and boarded-up houses, children played tag football while Nagin, a few miles away in City Hall, warned of impending trouble.
There were surreal reminders that this coastal region of 2 million people was in the early stages of a dramatic exodus. Police escorted a long convoy of white buses filled with inmates -- destination unknown, because for security reasons state officials would not say where they were moving some 8,800 inmates.
At a Wal-Mart in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, a long line formed at the pharmacy as soon-to-be evacuees stocked up on medicine. Construction worker Elie Porter, 59, who was waiting for his medication, said he was heading north to Jackson, Miss., where he had relatives.
Before Katrina, he said, he waited too long to leave and was stuck in hours of stalled traffic.
This time, he said, “I’m just not taking no chances.”
Juanita Shields, 46, loaded up on dry goods at Wal-Mart. She said she intended to weather the storm at her home in Jefferson Parish, just as she did Katrina.
Shields said she lived in knee-deep water for a week after Katrina struck.
“I’m just stubborn, hard-headed,” she said, laughing. With a note of optimism, she added: “It’s going to be better this time.”
In the flood-prone stretches of Cajun country west of New Orleans, there were expressions of anxiety and insouciance. The southernmost parts of these parishes are particularly vulnerable to storm damage, as the lush marshes that once slowed down storm surges have largely disappeared.
In Houma, an oil and seafood city in Terrebonne Parish about 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, Gwen Breaux, 50, was loading up ramen noodles and cases of soda at a dollar store.
“We’re not messing around with this,” Breaux said. “When they say Category 3, I’m gone.”
But contractor Guy Sonier, 48, dismissed the danger. “I ain’t left for a hurricane yet,” he said.
On Magnolia Street in Uptown New Orleans, Kim Jones said she and about 30 family members were planning a convoy to Greenville, in northwest Mississippi. She knew nothing of Greenville; it was simply the closest place she could get a hotel room.
Asked whether New Orleans could rebound from another flood, Jones snorted and gestured across the street at boarded-up houses still awaiting repairs from Katrina.
“Ha!” she said. “They ain’t rebuilt it from the last one.”
Times staff writer Miguel Bustillo contributed to this report.