(Adds background, New Orleans official comments)
By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS Aug 27 Three years after Hurricane
Katrina slammed into the Louisiana coast, New Orleans residents
on Wednesday again faced the prospect of an evacuation as
Tropical Storm Gustav loomed.
Not since Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed in its
wake, have residents faced government orders to evacuate their
homes and businesses. Many are still struggling to rebuild
their lives in a city famed for its jazz clubs and Mardi Gras
On Wednesday, two days before the third anniversary of
Katrina's Aug. 29, 2005, landfall, Gustav drifted away from
Haiti and the Dominican Republic after killing 22 people. It
could hit the U.S. Gulf Coast around Monday.
The storm was expected to strengthen to a hurricane over
the Gulf's warm waters, and U.S. landfall could be anywhere
from the Florida panhandle to Texas.
But Gustav's most likely track is directly toward New
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put New Orleans residents on
alert, saying evacuations could begin as early as Friday.
City officials said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin would order
an evacuation if Gustav looked likely to come ashore with wind
speeds over 111 miles per hour (178 kph) -- a Category 3
hurricane or higher on the 5-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
"It's still too early to tell exactly what it's going to
do," city emergency preparedness director Jerry Sneed said.
Nagin, the city's public face during Katrina and Rita, cut
short his trip to the Democratic National Convention in Denver
to return home.
THEY ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY
During Katrina and Rita, many city residents ignored
mandatory evacuation orders and remained to guard their homes
and businesses from looters.
Sneed said residents would not be physically forced to
leave their homes during an evacuation order -- which would be
given about 30 hours before the storm comes ashore.
But they assume responsibility if they stay, Sneed said.
"If a tree comes through the roof and buries them
underneath there, they're going to be on their own," Sneed
Sneed said he was confident that floodgates and pumping
stations that failed during the 2005 storms would bear up.
"The citizens should not be worried about the flooding
again," he said.
Storm levees broke under the onslaught of Katrina in 2005,
flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and killing almost 1,500
people in the city and along the Gulf coast. The hurricane
caused at least $80 billion in wind and flood damage. Some
estimates put damages as high as $125 billion.
Jindal said he had activated the state's catastrophic
action team and could declare a state of emergency as early as
Thursday. He also has put the Louisiana National Guard on
Jindal, elected in October 2007, is hoping to avoid heavy
criticism that fell on his predecessor, Kathleen Blanco, for
not reacting swiftly after Katrina.
Federal agencies and the New Orleans city government also
faced the wrath of residents over their response to the
disaster. President George W. Bush himself was severely
criticized for his role, including his initial decision to view
the devastated city only from the air.
After Katrina, chaos broke out in New Orleans as stranded
flood victims waited days for help. Many residents who fled the
hurricane have not returned.
Jindal said that if the threat continues, the state could
make 700 buses available for assisted evacuations, which could
begin on Friday for people who need help due to medical or
Amtrak trains were standing by to move 7,000 elderly
residents to safety, Sneed said.
(Editing by Chris Baltimore and Xavier Briand)