Fear Factor: Is NOLA Ready for Katrina Part 2?

Residents in Gulf Coast states prepare for potential evacuations.

Aug. 29, 2008 — -- As predicted, Gustav regained hurricane strength with winds of up to 75 miles per hour as residents in Gulf Coast states prepared to begin evacuations at 8 a.m. Saturday.

Gustav could blow winds near 130 mph, Category 4 strength, 12 hours before its Tuesday landfall, reported the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

As Gustav barreled through the Caribbean en route to the Gulf Coast Friday, President Bush declared an emergency in Louisiana.

The storm headed to the Cayman Islands today after ravaging Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. On those islands, the storm left 75 dead in its wake.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said mandatory evacuation notices would go out to coastal Mississippi residents this weekend.

The storm is even more troublesome to New Orleans residents, with memories of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina still fresh in their minds.

Before Katrina etched its path of destruction through the Gulf Coast three years ago today, Wendy Smith decided not to leave New Orleans, where she had weathered so many storms.

Then Katrina hit east of New Orleans, the levees broke and the city was flooded. For the first days, Smith, a 43-year-old lifelong resident, was stranded in a hospital about two miles from her home. But then she got tired of waiting to return to her Mid City neighborhood.

"I swam home and spent about a week stranded at my home," she said.

Smith is ready for Gustav.

"When we first received news that there was a storm out in the Gulf that was threatening to be bad as Katrina, I immediately called and made hotel reservations in Memphis," she said. "I had known for the past three years that I certainly was not waiting to make my plans."

Exodus to Other Cities

Other people also are taking such precautions, evidently. Across the region, hotels are seeing rooms swept up by residents trying to get as far inland as possible.

The Holiday Inn in downtown Shreveport, La., sold out two days ago, according to John Johnese, the assistant general manger. Most of the travelers are coming from the greater New Orleans area.

"We're actually oversold," Johnese said.

The hotel -- about a 340-mile drive from New Orleans -- has 190 rooms but 220 reservations, with rooms booked through Tuesday.

Travelers are now being sent to Little Rock, Ark., and Dallas.

"Shreveport is full, every hotel," Johnese said. "I think there's 8,000 rooms in Shreveport total and they're all full."

Three years ago, during Hurricane Katrina, Johnese was working at a Holiday Inn in Alexandria, La.

Back then, he said, "we had 10 to a room."

"It was pretty bad," Johnese said. "Hopefully, this one isn't like that."

Capital One has reserved 60 of the rooms in case it needs to move workers from New Orleans to some of its office space in Shreveport, Johnese said.

The hotel is charging $139.99 a night, $10 higher than normal because of the holiday weekend. On Tuesday, the rate falls to $94.99.

"Wish us luck dealing these people," Johnese said. "I know they are going to be irate, tired and we're just going to have to drink a lot when we get off work."

Another 200 miles up the road in Little Rock, Seth Rolfe is seeing reservations flow in at the front desk of the Hilton Little Rock Metro Center.

"We still do have availability," Rolfe said, but "occupancy jumped about 60 percent starting Sunday through Thursday."

Most of the reservations are for five days.

"They can cancel 24 hours in advance," Rolfe said. "This thing can turn a different way and it's all over with. We're not banking on it yet."

It's a similar story in Memphis, about a 400-mile drive north of New Orleans.

At the Marriott downtown, all 604 guest rooms are sold out. A reservation agent said people are booking rooms for seven to 10 days, and some people are booking blocks of 10 to 15 rooms at a time.

New Orleans Nerves

Despite promises from the state government and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that Katrina's sordid aftermath won't be repeated, New Orleans residents of all stripes are nervous, and experts say they have every right to be.

One indication of how seriously everyone is taking the storm is that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is already in New Orleans, where this morning he told "Good Morning America" that he plans to survey the infamous Industrial Canal and the 17th Street Canal pumping station.

"What you'll see is the product of three years of planning, training and exercising it at all levels of government," Chertoff told "GMA." "We're clearly better prepared."

For forecasters and frightened locals alike, the comparison between Katrina and Gustav was immediate. Both storms are moving more slowly than is typical, and like Katrina before it, Gustav is expected to move over a warm patch of air in the Gulf of Mexico that will likely take it from Category 1 (rough) to Category 3 (devastating).

"All the models are suggesting that this thing is going to accelerate as it's nearing the Gulf of Mexico. ... Right now, Gustav is not a large storm, but that could change by the way," said Louisiana state climatologist Barry Keim. "All people concerned are keeping an eye on it."

The hurricane is expected to make landfall somewhere on the Gulf Coast on Tuesday.

But it's not just the meteorological similarities; the timing of the storm doesn't ease residents' minds either. Today is the third anniversary of the day the mighty hurricane left this Southern city destroyed, and organizers are scrambling to put the finishing touches on a memorial to its victims.

"For me, I couldn't really sleep yesterday," Angelique Valteau, a 27-year-old nurse who lives in the city's Gentilly neighborhood, told ABCNews.com.

Unlike Smith, Valteau did evacuate during Katrina, but instead of staying with her cousin in Baton Rouge for a week as she'd intended, she ended up temporarily moving to Long Island, N.Y. When she returned, she found the home that she had recently purchased decimated.

This time around, Valteau sees a city -- both its government and its residents -- being more proactive when it comes to planning.

"I think people are trying to be prepared. I think people do have a personal plan, and if they don't, they're definitely working on getting one," she said. "But I think the city is nervous. People are anxious, definitely."

New Orleans Evacuation?

This time around, city and state leaders are trying to clear up the non-responsive, disorganized reputation they earned around the country in Katrina's aftermath. This week, both Louisiana and Mississippi declared states of emergency when Gustav was still a tropical storm.

New Orleans plans to issue a mandatory evacuation order if a Category 3 or stronger hurricane comes within 60 hours of the city. Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome, but instead, a plan designed to encourage residents to leave. The state has arranged for buses and trains to take up to 30,000 people to safety. The city expects an evacuation to take 24 to 36 hours.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has put 3,000 National Guard troops on alert, while FEMA has readied supplies, such as water, food and generators, to distribute in the region.

But it's not the city's organization level that has residents who have ridden out storms in the past fastidiously planning their exits; it's their shaken faith in the levees that were built to protect them.

"It feels like [the city] has a definite plan of action to evacuate the indigent and those with health problems," said 37-year-old Michelle Gibbs, who lives in Lacombe, right outside New Orleans. "I'm not confident about the levees holding."

Hurricane Gustav vs. Katrina

But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains that the system is different now than it was in 2005.

"Well, you know, I am not prepared to say what level of storm we can protect against," said Col. Jeff Bedey, who oversees the federal flood protection system in New Orleans. "The system is stronger today than pre-Katrina."

But all across the city, residents are packing up because of that shaken faith. Experts believe their fears may be well-founded.

"The general preparedness planning has been very, very much upgraded," said Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "Gov. Jindal has a handle on all the resources available. ... He's also putting alerts out to citizens and very extensively telling people what they need to do, what they need to be aware of.

"All of the prospective planning things seem to be in a far better shape than pre-Katrina," he added. "But I'm not so sure about the levees. ... We could conceivably be on the verge of a real-life testing of the stability of the levee repairs."

For Klaus Jacob, a special research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, it's more complicated.

"You have to realize the levees were built in the late '30s, and over the decades they evolved," Jacob said.

Year after year, land in the extreme Mississippi Delta, where New Orleans sits, sinks, said Jacob. Combine that with rising sea levels caused by global warming, and you've got a problem on your hands.

"The land sinks, and the levee sinks with the land; therefore they do not do as well a job as the engineers planned," he said.

Levees and Floods

Similarly, it's the levees that Sandy Rosenthal gets passionate about. A lifelong New Orleans resident-turned-activist, she lives uptown.

Speaking with a slight but unmistakable N'awlins accent, Rosenthal said, "If you would have asked me the day before Katrina [if I trusted those levees], I would have told you absolutely. They're built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Now even with the assurance that the levees are stronger than they were, I myself have little faith in those levees."

Like his fellow residents, Derrick Rogers, a 28-year-old sales manager who lives in the Broadmoor neighborhood and is working on his MBA at Tulane University, has already made reservations at hotels in Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.

But Rogers seems less concerned about the potential physical devastation that Gustav might wreak; instead, he's concerned about killing the spirit of his hometown, a culturally rich place that's just beginning to refind its footing.

Rogers returned to his hometown after Katrina to take part in rebuilding the city. The momentum and energy, along with residents and tourism dollars, could be lost, he fears.

"I honestly feel that if the city floods like it did before, then that's pretty much it for New Orleans," he said.

ABC News' Scott Mayerowitz contributed to this report.