Gustav's track unnerves New Orleans

Dominican Republic: Residents stand in front of several houses destroyed by a landslide in Guachupita, Santo Domingo, on Wednesday. Authorities said that eight people died, including two infants, in the landslide triggered by Gustav. The hurricane killed at least 23 people in Haiti. Low-lying areas in east Cuba have been evacuated.

Associated Press

Dominican Republic: Residents stand in front of several houses destroyed by a landslide in Guachupita, Santo Domingo, on Wednesday. Authorities said that eight people died, including two infants, in the landslide triggered by Gustav. The hurricane killed at least 23 people in Haiti. Low-lying areas in east Cuba have been evacuated.

NEW ORLEANS — Roland Darby is a changed man.

The 66-year-old New Orleans native spent Hurricane Betsy in 1965 on his rooftop in the 9th Ward and Hurricane Katrina on the second floor of his flooded New Orleans East home for four days awaiting rescue.

But if Tropical Storm Gustav stays on its current track, Darby said, he and his wife won't be around to witness it. He's not sure the city — or its levees — are ready.

"I'll wait until Friday and see," he said Wednesday. "If it's still on a path toward me, I'll be getting up!"

Almost as soon as the big red blob appeared on the Weather Channel on Tuesday with a projected path showing it headed directly south of New Orleans, people here began making evacuation plans.

Residents called out-of-town relatives. Hotels outside the city stopped taking reservations. And employees arranged to take Friday off.

Taking no chances, city officials began preliminary planning to evacuate and lock down the city in hopes of avoiding the catastrophe that followed Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, 2005. Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency to lay the groundwork for federal assistance and put 3,000 National Guard troops on standby.

If a Category 3 or stronger hurricane comes within 60 hours of the city, New Orleans plans to institute a mandatory evacuation order. Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome, a plan designed to encourage residents to leave. Instead, the state has arranged for buses and trains to take people to safety.

Gustav weakened to a tropical storm on Wednesday after raking Haiti, killing at least 23 people, but was expected to become a hurricane again as early as today over warm Caribbean waters. Nearly 30,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas in eastern Cuba.

By Labor Day, Gustav could make landfall anywhere from south Texas to Florida, and hurricane experts said everyone in between should be concerned.

"We know it's going to head into the gulf. After that, we're not sure," said meteorologist Rebecca Waddington at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "For that reason, everyone in the gulf needs to be monitoring the storm."

The collective tension was palpable in New Orleans, where only 72 percent of the households have returned since Hurricane Katrina and about 34 percent of the properties are considered blighted.

This is where memories of loss are more than television pictures. They remain a part of every day life.

"At work, you got all kinds of people freaking out about it," said Richard Briede on Wednesday evening.

Briede and his wife, Doretta, had stopped at the construction site of their old, flooded home in the Lakeview neighborhood to take one last look at the raised foundation before workers come this morning to pour a new concrete slab.

"Obviously we haven't rebuilt yet," Doretta, 53, said with a smile. "So we don't have a lot to lose."

Underscoring every conversation about the storm, one question lingered: Is this still-recovering city ready?

A few blocks away, Evelyn Menge, 61, and Dena Majett, 50, paused from their evening stroll. Behind them was a vacant lot that once belonged to a home. Across the street, two more.

"I do think there's a certain panic in the air," said Menge, who already made arrangements to evacuate to a hotel in Baton Rouge with her 85-year-old mother if necessary.

Menge lost her home and all her possessions three years ago. But that time, she said, she was oblivious to Hurricane Katrina until two days before the storm. Not this time.

"The real bugaboo for people is the levees," Menge said.

If the Army Corps of Engineers is to be trusted, the levees are mended. But if the people of this city are skeptical of anything, it's the Army Corps of Engineers.

"They say they're having problems with those levees — they say they're leaking — and then they say the levees are right," Darby said as he loaded groceries into his car outside Rouses Food Market at the Lakefront. "How the hell's the levee going to leak if it's right?"

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Gustav's track unnerves New Orleans 08/27/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 31, 2008 9:05am]

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