NEW ORLEANS -- Even though no one will know for days exactly where Tropical Storm Gustav will march ashore, New Orleans area officials on Wednesday started announcing contingency plans for housing, emergency transportation, drainage and evacuation.
Just two days before the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's onslaught on the New Orleans area and the ensuing levee breaks, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a pre-storm state of emergency Wednesday, announcing the mobilization of 3,000 National Guard troops with as many 5,000 call-ups possible depending on the course of the storm. Gustav weakened Tuesday night as it moved across Haiti, but was expected to regain hurricane strength by today.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin came home early from the Democratic National Convention to help the city prepare. Jindal declared a state of emergency Wednesday, which could begin an evacuation process.
Despite the uncertainty about Gustav, St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro said Wednesday that he probably will order an evacuation if the storm continues on that course and becomes a Category 3 hurricane.
Floodwaters submerged the parish after Katrina. Although Taffaro said the levees have been fortified, a surge with a Category 3 storm would present "significant challenges."
Parish residents who will need help evacuating, especially those with special needs, should call 504.278.1593 to arrange pickup. Taffaro said that as of Wednesday only 60 people had signed up.
--- Parishes prepare ---
If Gustav seems likely to endanger Jefferson Parish, authorities there can order everyone to evacuate, and a curfew will be imposed 60 hours before the expected landfall, said Deano Bonano, an aide to Parish President Aaron Broussard.
Shelters have been built at pump stations and first responders will be housed there, Bonano said, adding that employees in the parish's Water and Sewerage departments also have been trained to work at pump stations.
Once evacuation is complete, sandbag levees will be laid across Airline Drive and Metairie Road to keep New Orleans floodwater from seeping into East Jefferson, Bonano said.
Sandbags will be made available to St. John the Baptist Parish residents if the storm threatens, parish spokesman Buddy Boe said.
In St. Tammany Parish, officials are expected to meet today to prepare, Parish President Kevin Davis said.
If an evacuation is ordered, it probably won't happen until Saturday afternoon, he said, because residents who live south of the parish will need to get through first.
To prepare for heavy rains, the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is repairing what it called "significant deterioration" at the bottom end of discharge tubes attached to pumps that move water out of the Orleans Avenue Canal at Pump Station No. 7, next to the Marconi underpass.
--- Storm track updated ---
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the National Weather Service said there was a 30 percent chance that tropical storm-force winds of 45 mph will reach New Orleans by Monday afternoon, and a 5 percent chance of hurricane-force winds reaching the Mississippi River's delta.
Possible landing sites range from the Texas-Louisiana border to Tampa, on Florida's southwest coast, with at least one model pointing at New Orleans.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the storm's center was about 65 miles southeast of Guantanamo, Cuba. The coordinates were 19 degrees north and 75 degrees west.
Siona LaFrance, a spokeswoman for the Recovery School District, said an announcement about closings is expected today.
Oil and gas production companies began evacuating personnel from offshore rigs and platforms on Wednesday.
Representatives of Entergy New Orleans Inc. and Entergy Louisiana said they are monitoring the storm and, if it becomes necessary, will move crews and contractors to the landfall area as quickly as possible to restore service.
In New Orleans, Jerry Sneed, the city's director of homeland security and emergency preparedness, said it remained undecided Wednesday whether City Hall would enact its evacuation program. Designed to be put in place before a storm of Category 3 strength or higher, it could be triggered by a slow-moving Category 2.
Under the plan, residents who need help getting out of town would gather at 17 sites, where they would be picked up by Regional Transit Authority buses and taken to the Union Passenger Terminal. From there, they would board state-chartered buses bound for shelters in Shreveport, Monroe and Alexandria, or Amtrak trains, which could carry as many as 7,242 people to Jackson, Miss.
Sneed urged residents who cannot get to the loading sites on their own to register for a program that will pick them up at their homes. To sign up for New Orleans' city-assisted evacuation plan, residents should call 311, 877.286.6431 or 800.981.6652.
--- Police to stay on duty ---
If an evacuation is ordered, New Orleanians who stay behind cannot expect help from the police department, Sneed said.
The police department also "is not going to go through the homes and pull anybody out," he said, but added that anyone caught outside after curfew will be arrested.
All police officers will be required to report for duty at least 24 hours before tropical storm-force winds -- at least 45 mph -- reach the city, Superintendent Warren Riley said. The entire force would be required to stay during a storm event, he said, adding that officers probably would rotate on 12-hour shifts.
To avert looting, Riley said his officers -- along with at least 300 Louisiana National Guard soldiers -- would fan out across the city, particularly along evacuation routes, as residents head out of town.
When winds reach 55 mph, all emergency workers, including police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers, will retreat to five high-ground sites in the city, then re-emerge when strong winds subside, he said.
Riley declined to disclose the locations except to say they are in Algiers, Central City and Uptown.
Riley said his officers, along with emergency responders across the region, are prepared to tap into a radio system that provides instant communication for agencies that normally operate independently. The system is supported by the National Guard.
"If one of the radio (frequencies) goes down, we can hit off towers anywhere in the state," Riley said.
Dr. Jullette Saussy, the city's director of emergency medical services, encouraged residents to refill vital prescriptions and secure backup power sources for medical devices. Residents with health conditions who need help evacuating also should call 311, she said.
"The very last thing we want to be doing is finding out on D-Day that you need our help," she said.
--- Buses ready to go ---
Officials on Wednesday said that with far more calls than usual coming in this week to the 311 hotline, they added more operators, though wait times still could be lengthy.
The state's preliminary evacuation timeline would start 82 hours before tropical storm-force winds were expected to hit the Louisiana coastline, Sneed said, though he emphasized Wednesday that the time is highly variable.
The latest forecast estimated that could happen Monday afternoon.
Counting backward from that target, he said, the state Department of Transportation and Development would activate charter-bus contracts early Friday. Amtrak trains already are stationed at the Union Passenger Terminal, he said.
RTA buses would begin shuttling residents from the pickup sites Saturday morning, with charter buses arriving in the city about noon, he said. City Hall also has inked emergency contracts with Laidlaw and a local tour company to provide additional school buses and coaches, if necessary, Sneed said.
As many as 1,000 buses are ready to get 30,000 people into shelter beds across the state, said Harvey Johnson, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Louisiana already has signed agreements with Mississippi and Alabama to get residents into shelters there, he said.
Residents evacuating on their own would be asked to wait until mid-morning on Sunday, after the departure of residents from coastal areas, Sneed said.
In addition, contracts and support systems are in place to get up to 21,000 people to the postal terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to fly to cities such as Atlanta; Memphis, Tenn.; and Little Rock, Ark.
People who want to take their pets with them will find lists of shelters throughout the state at all Red Cross welcome centers, the SPCA announced.
--- Water projects on hold ---
If the storm does get closer to the New Orleans area, the Army Corps of Engineers will direct dams to be removed from several canals where drainage construction projects are under way, including the Soniat Canal between Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Canal No. 3 and the Elmwood Canal at West Esplanade Avenue, both in Metairie; the Grand Cross Canal at Lapalco Boulevard; and the Cousins Canal Phase II project on Jefferson Parish's West Bank.
Dr. Mark Townsend, vice chairman of the psychiatry department at LSU Health Sciences Center, said the flurry of pre-storm preparation can't help but stir up memories of devastation and loss that people have been trying to move beyond.
"We are having an anniversary reaction that is very unfortunate because when there's been a loss in someone's life, most people are upset at that time," Townsend said.
"For people who still have post-traumatic stress disorder . . . this is a very difficult thing for them, because it makes the symptoms worse," he said.Staff writers Bill Barrow, Charlie Chapple, Susan Finch, David Hammer, Richard Rainey, Paul Rioux, Mark Schleifstein, Darran Simon and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report. John Pope can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org 504.826.3317. Michelle Krupa can be reached email@example.com 504.826.3312.