New Orleans mayor orders evacuation of storm-braced city
Monday, 01 September 2008

Government fears repeat of devastation caused by Katrina

Agencies

Residents have been ordered to flee New Orleans as the city braces for its worst hurricane since Katrina struck with devastating force three years ago.

Hurricane Gustav, which has been upgraded to category four, has already killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and fears of a repeat of the devastation caused by Katrina, when the US government was shamed by images of people stranded without relief, prompted the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, to issue a stark warning last night.

He called Gustav the "storm of the century" and told the city's estimated 340,000 residents: "You need to be concerned and you need to get your butts moving and out of New Orleans right now."

The mandatory evacuation of the city's west bank, where levee improvements remain incomplete, is due to begin at 8am (1pm BST), with the east bank to follow at noon.

Forecasters predict the storm should make landfall tomorrow afternoon somewhere between western Mississippi and East Texas, where evacuations were also under way.

Some have suggested that Nagin might be overplaying the threat - it is not certain that New Orleans will take a direct hit - after the political fallout from the failure to evacuate New Orleans ahead of Katrina.

Katrina was a category three when its 28ft storm surge burst the levees protecting New Orleans on August 29 2005, flooding 80% of the city. The hurricane left around 1,500 people dead on the Gulf coast and an $80bn (£40bn) bill to repair the damage made it the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Federal officials say the levees protecting New Orleans are stronger now but still have gaps that make vulnerable some of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by Katrina's floods.

Gustav's centre was about 485 miles south-east of the Mississipp river's mouth at 2am, with top winds of near 135mph expected to strengthen as it crosses the central Gulf.

Yesterday, it hit Cuba's tobacco-growing western tip, where no deaths were reported, before moving away from the island country into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Cuban weather service said one of its stations measured a wind gust of 204mph and officials said the storm knocked over trees, damaged buildings, and demolished banana plantations.

Hurricane deaths are rare in Cuba, where evacuations are well organised and begin early.

The storm is the first test of New Orleans' revamped evacuation plan designed to eliminate the chaos, looting and death that followed Katrina.

But a plan to electronically log and track evacuees with a bar code system has already failed and been aborted to keep the buses moving. Officials said information on evacuees would be taken when they reached their destinations.

The city will not offer emergency services to those who choose to stay behind, Nagin said, and there will be no "last resort" shelter as there was during Katrina, when thousands were crammed into the Louisiana Superdome in squalid conditions.

In a news release residents were warned that those who remained on their property after the mandatory evacuation started would be subject to arrest. Some 2,000 National Guard troops were expected in the city.

An estimated 1 million people had already fled the Gulf Coast before the warning was issued. They clogged roadways, emptied gas stations of fuel and jammed phone circuits.

At the city's main transit terminal, a line snaked through the parking lot for more than a mile as residents with no other means of getting out waited to board buses bound for shelters in north Louisiana and beyond.

Homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, plans to travel to Louisiana today to observe preparations. And the Republican candidate for president, John McCain, and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, were travelling to Mississippi.

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