August 29, 2008

New Orleans on Top of Gustav to Avoid 2005 Repeat

By Rick Jervis and Donna Leinwand

NEW ORLEANS -- As Gustav threatened to pack a wallop, local leaders and emergency workers unfurled plans and readied evacuation tactics Thursday to avoid a repeat of the deadly mistakes that preceded Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, widely blamed for the ineffective response following Katrina, went over plans to keep communication lines open and set up command centers. City leaders readied police officers and National Guard troops to prevent post-disaster looting and urged residents to heed evacuation orders.

On Thursday, the eve of the third anniversary of Katrina, some residents required little convincing.

Katrina hit just east of New Orleans, flooding 80% of the city and leading to the costliest disaster in U.S. history.

"They're moving. They're getting out," said Linda Jackson, president of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association. "We're never going to disrespect another hurricane again in our life."

Some of the things done differently today from post-Katrina:

*No shelters of last resort. The Superdome and Convention Center, sites of massive, unruly crowds during Katrina, won't be used as shelters. Instead, city officials pledged to orchestrate a pre-storm evacuation using Amtrak trains, buses and flights.

*Looting control. New Orleans police say they will have the entire force on call, along with 300 National Guardsmen, at major department stores and neighborhoods across the city.

*Communication. FEMA officials will set up a "Unified Command" center in Baton Rouge, where state, local and federal agents will share daily information. Lack of communication between agencies after Katrina contributed to a slow response.

Katrina wrote script

"We feel we are more ready this year than we have ever been," says Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Salerno, assistant commandant for Marine Safety, Security and Stewardship.

The Coast Guard is moving its boats and aircraft out of the storm's path and mobilizing an emergency response group that can help after the storm with law enforcement and hazardous waste issues, Salerno says. Ports will be closed 12 hours before the storm arrives, he says.

American Red Cross field operations are underway in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, says Armond Mascelli, vice president of disaster services. The organization began moving supplies and equipment into the areas on Tuesday, including trucks for mobile feeding, and cots and blankets for shelters.

Mascelli says they are following a script written in part from "lessons learned from Katrina."

Operations 'more capable'

The Defense Department's Northern Command says it is prepared to help with search and rescue and medical evacuation operations, says Rear Adm. Chris Colvin, director of operations.

"In general, we're finding that state, local and federal agencies are tremendously more capable than they were three years ago after Katrina," Colvin says.

Hospitals also took steps to avoid the disastrous weeks following Katrina, where patients were evacuated in flood waters.

Newly installed hurricane-proof satellite dishes were readied at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, to improve communication after a storm, and many of the patients were scheduled to be relocated early. During Katrina, the hospital evacuated 1,600 patients from its premises, CEO Robert Lynch said.

Louisiana prison authorities also said they would begin evacuating 2,300 prisoners from New Orleans-area jails Friday and could move as many as 8,000 inmates from low-lying state and local detention centers. Inmates in local jails and detention centers were among the casualties when Katrina swept through, Angola State Prison warden Burl Cain said.

Celebrity chef John Besh, owner of four restaurants in the New Orleans area, said he was letting his more than 300 employees go home early today to prepare for the storm. He was also stockpiling 300 pounds of rice and 300 pounds of red beans to help feed evacuees later, if needed.

"Five years ago, we wouldn't even know there was a hurricane out there," Besh said. "We're all taking it far more seriously."

Contributing: Kevin Johnson and Mary Brophy Marcus

*Officials launch plans, 1A (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>