On Sunday New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered an evacuation as Hurricane Gustav gained strength in the Gulf Coast and charted a path toward the city. Just three years after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the “Big Easy” found itself in the path of another major system; much stronger in intensity than Katrina. In addition to New Orleans, surrounding parishes are also under evacuation orders.
Local weather reports Sunday afternoon indicated the storm had weakened somewhat, but Gustav was still churning at 125 mph and could conceivably grain strength as it moved across the warm waters of the Gulf. Yesterday’s forecasts predicted a Category 4 or Category 5 storm but Gustav had weakened overnight to a Catergory 3. Still, the storm hit New Orleans and surrounding areas with enough force that there is expected to be storm surges from the hurricane force winds. The prospects for confusion was evident Sunday evening as conflicting assessments of the intensity of the storm were provided over local television stations with some forecasters gingerly downgrading Gustav and some emergency officials warning of the worst possible scenario.
The evacuation order represents a sharp change from the indecision when Katrina hit, with the federal, state and local governments in disarray over how best to respond to that storm. This time authorities acted quickly when it became apparent that Gustav could reach Category 4 status when it hit landfall. A storm of that magnitude would have been devastating for communities in its path, particularly areas prone to flooding and where levees have not been reinforced to contend with storm surges.
On Sunday afternoon State Attorney General Buddy Caldwell reported on WDSU-TV that a private contractor retained to supply busses for evacuations failed to provide the number of vehicles stipulated under contract. Caldwell indicated he was going to speak to the U.S. Attorney regarding the situation. He also noted that his office had received 400 complaints over price gouging at service stations and hotels. WDSU-TV was also reporting that City Hall was shut down with only a skeleton emergency services staff remaining behind. Journalists were asked to leave the building as the city prepared for the storm.
Mayor Ray Nagin also appeared on WDSU at 5:10 pm on Sunday to give an update on the city’s emergency preparedness. Nagin said many people had evacuated the city and that time was running out for those still remaining. He also suggested that this storm would be a test for the levee system and hinted that there was concern that internal disputes between federal agencies and contractors may have impacted reconstruction of the levees. Still, Nagin indicated that evacuation efforts had moved along to a degree that did not occur during Katrina.
On WWL-TV on Sunday State Senator David Heitmeier of Orleans and Jefferson Parishes discussed emergency preparations for the coming storm and suggested the western bank of the city could feel the full brunt of the storm. He also suggested that the energy industry could be devastated if oil rigs in the Gulf Coast sustained damage. Heitmeier, a Democrat, sits on the Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee for the Louisiana Legislature.
Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA) who represents New Orleans has established an emergency telephone number, 1.866.498.6161, for residents in need of assistance.
New Orleans appears better prepared for the storm than three years ago when Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the city. The city has boats pre-positioned for quick access in the event of flooding, and National Guard troops were also positioned in strategic locations in the event that emergency rescues are necessary. By Monday the city had emptied with most residents evacuated and en route to shelter.
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal briefed the media on Monday evening on conditions in the New Orleans area and throughout the state. Chertoff urged residents to delay their return, citing dangerous conditions such as downed power lines and widespread power failures. The governor reminded residents that despite the storm's passing, rising waters posed a threat to the levee system. Authorities were monitoring Lake Pontchartrain as its waters were beginning to rise to dangerous levels. Jindal also made a point to call for the restoration of wetlands that serve as a natural barrier against tropical storms.
NSnewstv.com will be following this story as it develops.
(Story was updated 8:00 pm September1.)
New Orleans local television stations WWL, WGNO, WDSU and WVUE were monitored for storm coverage in writing this report. (Story was updated 8:00 pm September1.)