With Gustav approaching hurricane strength and showing no signs of veering off a track to slam into the Gulf Coast, authorities across the region 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.
The preliminary planning for a potential evacuation 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 Friday, officials said they were confident 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 flew 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 still several days away, authorities cautioned that no plans were set in stone, and had not yet called for residents to leave. Projections showed the storm arriving early next week as a Category 3 storm, with winds of 111 mph or greater, anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to eastern Texas. But forecasts are extremely tentative several days out, and the storm could change course.
Governors in both Louisiana and Texas pre-declared states of emergency in an attempt to build a foundation for federal assistance. Batteries, bottled water, and other storm supplies were selling briskly. Roughly 3,000 National Guard troops were on standby in Louisiana, and another 5,000 were readying in Texas. Hotels in the region reported being booked solid by coastal residents planning ahead.
"We're almost sold out," said Sheila Harris, the administrative assistant at the Comfort Inn in Tupelo, Miss, which is about 300 miles inland from the Mississippi coast. She said most of the 83 rooms at the hotel had been booked by New Orleans and southern Mississippi residents.
Many residents found themselves repeating the same things they did in the days before Katrina. The New Orleans Saints were set to play the Miami Dolphins in the team's final NFL preseason game Thursday night; the Saints played their final game of the 2005 preseason just three days before Katrina. Running back Deuce McAllister, who was planning to shore up his suburban home, found it a little weird to be preparing for a possible storm again.
"It's out of our hands," said McAllister. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
The city was expected to announce later Thursday whether officials would go ahead with events to mark the Katrina anniversary. Among the events that have been planned are a jazz funeral to bury remains of unidentified Katrina victims and a candlelight vigil at Jackson Square.
If a Category 3 or stronger hurricane threatens, New Orleans plans to institute a mandatory evacuation order. Depending on the churn of this system, the call could come with a slow-moving Category 2, the city's emergency preparedness director, Jerry Sneed, said.
Nagin said in interviews Wednesday that the clock on an evacuation would start three days, or 72 hours, from an anticipated landfall.
Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome, a plan designed to encourage residents to leave.
Residents who need help - the elderly, disabled, those without their own transportation - would be moved out by buses, bound for shelters in other Louisiana cities such as Alexandria, Shreveport and Monroe, and Amtrak trains headed to Jackson, Miss., officials have said. Others are expected to leave on their own by vehicle.
The city said it is prepared to move 30,000 residents; estimates put the city's current population between 310,000 to 340,000 people. There were about 454,000 here before Katrina hit.
Though officials urged residents to prepare by securing their homes, finding valuables and locating personal documents, some were taking a wait-and-see attitude. In Alabama, many tourists and residents were taking a wait-and-see attitude, and were more focused on the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
"We plan to sit in a bar and watch the whole thing," joked Greg Lee, a tourist from Clarksville, Tenn. He was grocery shopping with family members, stocking up on cold beverages and planning to stay through the holiday at their beach house at Fort Morgan, down a beach road from Gulf Shores.
Hurricane-seasoned officials also were hoping for the chance forecasts were wrong. Joey Durel, president of Lafayette's city and parish governments, said officials in that south-central Louisiana community may begin handing out sandbags to residents as early as Friday - but hoped they wouldn't need them.
"We're glad to see we're in the (forecast) path because they never get it right this far out," Durel said. "I say that slightly tongue in cheek, but it's true."