New Orleans Mayor Warns of 'Storm of the Century'

Resident Larry Denny won't evacuate, says "someone has to protect my home."

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31, 2008— -- Unlike most of his neighbors, New Orleans resident Larry Denny isn't worried enough about Hurricane Gustav to leave.

Never mind that his house flooded during Hurricane Katrina, the stress cracks in his roof have yet to be fixed and he and his wife felt it was necessary to get two guard dogs and an armory of weapons to ward off looters that roamed their street back in 2005.

Denny says that there is "no way" he and his wife Charlotte will evacuate New Orleans.

"Why do we stay?" asked Denny, who was raised in Louisiana and returned to New Orleans 15 years ago to settle in Orleans Parish, just north of the French Quarter. "Because we know the government won't protect our house, so we have to."

As of early Sunday morning, the National Hurricane Center reported that Gustav had weakened slightly overnight from a Category 4 hurricane to a Category 3, and had sustained wins of 120 mph. The hurricane is predicted to regain strength as it moves north Sunday.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who ordered a mandatory evacvuation of the city on Saturday, had not changed his mind about what was coming today, even though Gustav had weakened as it passed over Cuba more than forecasters expected.

"This is still a big ugly storm," he said at a news conference this morning. "It's still strong and I strongly urge everyone to leave."

Denny, however, said he won't be taking the mayor's advice.

"I won't be coming back to a shell," said Denny, who added that just like he rode out Katrina he'll do it again for Gustav, which is predicted to make landfall on the northern Gulf Coast on Monday at its current clip of 16 mph.

Nagin tried to offer some reassurance to people like Denny and Charlotte who have bitter memories of the chaos in the city after Katrina.

"Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time," Nagin said today at the news conference, in which he also announced a curfew beginng at sundown today. "You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You will go directly to the Big Housein the general population. You will go directly to Angola Prison and God bless you if you go there."

Nagin's warnings today echoed the strong words he had in a press conference Saturday evening, when he tried to convince his citizens who might be too stubborn to evacuate despite warnings and, as of early Sunday morning, mandatory evacuation orders.

"This is going to be the storm of the century," said Nagin, admitting that while he's usually "very calm," this time is different.

"You need to be scared," said Nagin. "This is the mother of all storms, and I'm not sure we've seen anything like this."

In the surrounding states, evacuations were also under way. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley declared a mandatory evacuation for much of the state, and areas of Mississippi and Texas were also preparing to move people north in anticipation of the storm.

Contraflow is in effect in both Louisiana and Mississippi to help last-minute stragglers drive north.

According to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's office, the state was preparing to house the overflow of Louisianans as they head north. Perry estimates that as many as 45,000 evacuees may seek shelter in Texas, many of whom the state plans to fly to northern cities such as San Antonio and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Rear Admiral Bob Papp, Atlantic Commander of the Coast Guard, told ABC News in a telephone interview that the Coast Guard would close all area ports tonight, after concentrating this afternoon on getting barges and tugboats out of the ports, particularly the Port of New Orleans. Most were going upriver, but some may also go out to sea.

USCG aircraft had been moved to a safe area so that search and rescue can begin after the storm passes.

Mayor, Residents Doubt Readiness of City, Levees

As the National Hurricane Center predicts Gustav will bring water surges between 18 and 25 feet, Nagin did not hesitate to cast doubt in the mind of citizens who might think the city's levees, which have been under construction since they failed during Katrina, would protect the city from floodwaters.

According to Nagin, the levees simply won't be tall enough.

"This is the real deal," said Nagin. "The levees [in the city of New Orleans] are probably 8 to 10 feet high."

David Paulison of the Federal Emergency Management Office, meanwhile, assessed the amount of water the levees can withstand in inches, not feet.

"The city is capable of pumping and handling an inch of rain in the first hour, and a half an inch of rain every hour after that," Paulison said at a news conference Saturday.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned that while the levees are in better shape than they were three years ago, there is a real danger of overtopping and flooding from rain.

"Rain is a big factor here," Chertoff said at a news conference. "Even if there is no overtopping of the levees, rain will likely cause some flooding in New Orleans."

But for Denny's wife Charlotte, excuses about the levees readiness are not good enough.

"If those levees don't hold, it will be the end [for New Orleans]," Charlotte said. "We are hanging on by our fingernails."

"I went to Hoover Dam and I didn't see any leaks; why should our levees be leaking?" Denny said. "It's terrifying."

The predicted wind speeds, said Nagin, are yet another aspect of the storm that he says the city simply cannot beat.

"There is not a building in this city rated above 150 mph [in wind resistance]," the mayor said.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hit the hardest during Katrina, most residents had already fled town -- not willing to take the same risk as the Denny family and others like them who were determined to stay for the storm.

The Lower Ninth Ward seemed like a ghost town, other than a few stragglers still packing cars -- and one man simply walking down the street crying and screaming, "Why are you doing this to me?" It was clear that the area was listening to Nagin's warnings.

But most of the people spoke to had all lived in the area during Katrina, and said they never thought twice about returning in its aftermath.

Ernest Williams, whose house was nearly destroyed during Katrina, said he loves New Orleans too much to abandon it for good.

"There is no place like New Orleans," said Williams, as he secured the last of his most valued possessions into a pickup truck before driving out of town.

"But yes, I'm scared," added Williams, who said it was hard to understand why the city could not guarantee the levees' strength.

"Millions have been pumped in to those levees -- something has to hold, right?" he said.

So far the mayor estimates that between 9,000 and 10,000 residents were moved out of the city on buses Saturday, and will continue to be evacuated through Sunday. Local highways will also all head north and out of the city Sunday.

After 6 p.m. on Sunday, Nagin warns residents: "You're on your own."

But for the Dennys -- alone doesn't sound too bad.

Sitting on his front porch with their two dogs -- Trooper and Bullet -- a pistol in his back pocket and a cabinet of loaded M-16 rifles in his bedroom, Larry Denny said he's too distrustful of the government, the levees and the New Orleans Police Department to abandon his house.

"They don't dare do what they did to us during Katrina again," said Denny, who said he'll "never stop being angry" about how Katrina's aftermath was botched by the city and the federal government.

"How can we trust them?" he said.

"I'm staying."