August 26, 2006

Louisiana on alert for Tropical Storm Ernesto

By Peter Henderson

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Louisiana's governor on Saturday
said the state could not rest easy as Tropical Storm Ernesto
churned through the Caribbean with the potential to strengthen
and land in New Orleans around the one-year anniversary of
Hurricane Katrina.

"Our entire coast is on alert," Gov. Kathleen Blanco told a
news conference during which she praised the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers for a year's worth of hard work fixing broken levees
but acknowledged the defenses remained untested by nature.

"There is a lot of work yet to be done. It is impossible to
rest easy right now," she said.

The head of the Corps, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, said engineers
had accomplished the bulk of flood system repairs since Katrina
but hesitated to say outright that New Orleans could weather a
Category 3 hurricane.

"To pinpoint it to one thing and say yes or no is a very
difficult question to answer," he said. "I'm as confident as I
can possibly be that we are prepared for Ernesto, should he
turn this way."

Katrina is generally regarded to have been a Category 3
hurricane when it hit New Orleans on August 29, but Strock
called it a Category 2 with storm surges -- mountains of water
pushed by the storm -- from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.


Officials deciding whether to evacuate New Orleans if
Ernesto threatens it must balance the need to protect people
against the risk of calling a false alarm and having residents
ignore a later evacuation order, Blanco said.

The Corps also faces a tough decision because its new
defense system could flood the city by limiting New Orleans'
ability to empty storm water from streets below sea level.

Storm surge from Katrina broke through the walls of canals
used to empty rain water into nearby Lake Pontchartrain. The
Corps' solution was to build flood gates that can shut off the
canals, keeping out the storm surge. But the gates would also
keep in rain water by blocking the end of the drainage canals.

Installation of pumps to move water over closed flood
gates, which could solve the problem, is behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the flood gates must be closed by cranes that are
not supposed to work in winds stronger than 30 mph (48 kph)

Corps District Cmdr. Richard Wagenaar said circumstances
would dictate how far he could bend those rules.

"I don't want the city to drown from within, and that's why
I have to take that risk potentially. And what I'm risking is
the equipment and the lives of my people," he told Reuters.


Ernesto, the fifth tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane
season, could become a dangerously powerful hurricane in the
oil-producing Gulf of Mexico next week, forecasters say.

The storm's eventual target zone ranged anywhere from the
Florida Panhandle through New Orleans and down to the border
with Mexico, but the northern Gulf coast appeared most likely.

"It is far too early at this point to determine the impact
or the non-impact on the city of New Orleans," Col. Terry
Ebbert, director of Homeland Security for the city, told a

"We have a plan, and we will execute a plan and it is our
goal to ensure that citizens are not placed in harm's way," he

This hurricane season, forecast to be busier than average,
has been relatively quiet with just five tropical storms and no
hurricane to date during the six-month period that began on
June 1.

But the Gulf Coast remains on edge ahead of the one-year
anniversary of Katrina. The costliest natural disaster in U.S.
history killed about 1,500 people in four states, according to
the National Hurricane Center, and left hundreds of thousands

Some 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, and only about
half of the city's population has returned.