NEW ORLEANS — With Gustav approaching hurricane strength and showing no signs of veering off a track to slam into the Gulf Coast, authorities began laying the groundwork Thursday to get the sick, elderly and poor away from the shoreline.
The first batch of 700 buses that could ferry residents inland were being sent to a staging area near New Orleans, and officials in Mississippi were trying to decide when to move Katrina-battered residents along the coast who were still living in temporary homes, including trailers vulnerable to high wind.
Gustav was lashing Jamaica Thursday, and officials in Haiti said at least 59 people died there from floods, mud slides and falling trees. Eight more people were buried when a cliff gave way in the Dominican Republic.
On Thursday night, the tropical storm's center was 35 miles west-southwest of Kingston, Jamaica's low-lying capital. Parts of Jamaica could get 25 inches of rain, forecaster said, and Gustav could strengthen into a hurricane before hitting Grand Cayman tonight.
The planning for a potential evacuation of New Orleans is part of a massive outline drafted after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore three years ago, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and stranding thousands who couldn't get out in time. As the region prepared to mark the storm's anniversary today, officials expressed confidence those blueprints made them ready for Gustav.
"There are a lot of things that are different between now and what we faced in 2005 when Katrina came ashore," said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was flying to Louisiana to meet with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Bobby Jindal. "We've had three years to put together a plan that never existed before."
With Gustav several days away, authorities cautioned that plans were not set in stone, and had not yet called for residents to leave. Projections showed the storm arriving early next week as a Category 3, with winds of 111 mph or greater, anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to eastern Texas.
Nagin said an evacuation order was likely in the coming days, but he didn't expect officials to tell people to leave before Saturday. Jindal said later that residents in areas further south could be told to leave starting today.
The American Red Cross was checking on shelters, deploying trucks that could deliver food and shipping supplies into the area. New Orleans-area hospitals stocked up on food, medicine, water and diesel fuel while sending fragile patients further inland.