NEW ORLEANS -- Aiming to show tangible improvements in reacting to disasters since Hurricane Katrina hit three years ago today, the Bush administration's top two disaster response officials were in Louisiana on Thursday to help prepare for Gustav.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison met with Gov. Bobby Jindal in Baton Rouge, then hashed out plans with Mayor Ray Nagin and his preparedness team in New Orleans.
As Gustav churned Thursday over Jamaica, officials at all levels of government in south Louisiana drafted contingency plans to anticipate, head off and, if necessary, repair any damage Gustav might cause.
Speaking late Thursday in New Orleans, Jindal said a phased evacuation could begin in coastal areas today and that contraflow, in which all lanes of major highways would direct traffic away from the storm-affected area, could start as soon as Saturday, depending on the storm's strength and speed.
Nagin said during an earlier City Hall briefing that it is "very probable" he will call a mandatory evacuation for New Orleans, though likely not any sooner than Saturday morning.
Flanked by City Council members and his top directors, Nagin urged residents to solidify evacuation plans and help ensure that the city is ready to move as many as 30,000 people out of harm's way.
"There may be some people out there who feel as though if they evacuate this time, they will never come back to the city of New Orleans," Nagin said. "Let me assure you, you can come back to this city. We just want to make sure that everyone is safe. We are better prepared this time."
Echoing Jindal's warnings that Gustav could expose the West Bank of Orleans and Jefferson parishes to strong winds and storm surge, City Council President Jackie Clarkson implored residents of Algiers to follow evacuation orders.
"We've been a very spared community, not just for Katrina but for generations -- and this time, it could be ours," she said.
--- Possible Tuesday landfall ---
Gustav is expected to blast ashore early Tuesday in central Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane, according to a 7 p.m. weather report Thursday.
However, forecasters pointed out that the storm could land anywhere between the Texas-Louisiana border and the Florida Panhandle. The National Weather Service predicted calm local weather through the weekend.
Gustav already has had a political impact. Jindal, a rising star in the Republican Party, has said he will skip next week's GOP convention to lead the state's response to the storm.
On Thursday, the campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain, the party's presumptive nominee, suggested postponing the St. Paul, Minn., gathering, which is scheduled to start Monday, to avoid the juxtaposition of partying politicians with Louisianians struggling against a storm, again.
Meanwhile, a 500-member federal contingent was expected to set up at FEMA's hurricane field office in Baton Rouge.
Paulison said Thursday that it was a "big-time lesson learned" from Katrina that his agency, while not charged with performing first-responder functions, needs to be more proactive, rather than reactive, when major storms threaten the United States.
On Thursday, he said, that was happening in Louisiana.
"We are working together harder, side by side. You don't see the bickering done before," he said. "We're making sure that everything possible is pre-positioned before the storm makes landfall."
--- Working in unison ---
Paulison said he has worked to change the culture at FEMA since Chertoff tapped him to replace the disgraced Katrina-era FEMA chief Michael Brown, to make it more flexible in working with state and local government partners.
His success in that regard was often questioned when Gov. Kathleen Blanco was in office, but now Paulison and Jindal's recovery chief, Paul Rainwater, are touting a new spirit of cooperation.
Jindal on Thursday dispatched Rainwater to New Orleans with instructions to work alongside city officials "before, during and after the storm" to ensure a clear line of communication with Baton Rouge, his spokeswoman said.
In preparing for the storm, Paulison said FEMA, Louisiana and parish officials were ahead of the game, having already triggered key transportation contracts to get tens of thousands of people into shelters if an evacuation is ordered.
Paulison said his team of 40 planners, already in Baton Rouge, have shored up lines of communication with local agencies and would be ready to move into place immediately after the storm.
Other bureaucratic matters that have drawn rabid criticism since Katrina, however, remain unchanged.
For instance, although Jindal asked President Bush on Thursday to declare the state a disaster area for the purposes of reimbursing the state for increased public safety costs and potential storm damage to public property, the federal government still would have to assess damage after the storm before Bush could release disaster assistance for individuals.
Also, a post-storm assessment would be necessary if a hospital ship were needed, as it was after Katrina incapacitated most medical facilities.
The Navy sent Hospital Ship Comfort to New Orleans on Sept. 28, 2005, a month after Katrina struck, drawing criticism for another slow response. Don Jacks, FEMA's Hurricane Planning Team spokesman, said a post-storm assessment of local hospitals and FEMA's Disaster Medical Assistance Teams would be necessary again before a hospital ship could be summoned.
--- Buses move into place ---
Paulison wanted to reassure nervous residents that the Army Corps of Engineers recently told him the levees protecting New Orleans are stronger than they were before Katrina.
But, Paulison said, dangers remain that make it critical for residents to follow evacuation orders. In addition, he said Tropical Storm Fay's recent slow crawl across Florida shows how much havoc rain alone can cause.
"Even if the levees hold, you know there can be serious flooding," he said.
In preparing for Gustav, Jindal announced Thursday that 150 buses were set to arrive in the state by day's end, with 550 more buses en route, to help evacuate as many as 35,000 people, he said. State-chartered buses are slated to pick up evacuees at designated points in affected parishes, then take them to shelters in north Louisiana and Tennessee.
The state also is opening special-needs shelters to serve 10,000 people, with the Red Cross working to open general population shelters for 68,000 more evacuees. The state and federal government also positioned ice, food and water in the state and around the region, Jindal said.
Jindal said the state's 1,110-plus state troopers had been put on call to help local law enforcement officials manage the contraflow. The task would require 900 officers if the state's population centers in southwest and southeast Louisiana must be cleared.
--- Guard on alert ---
The governor also said he was prepared to send more than 1,500 National Guard troops to New Orleans as early as today to help police secure the city. That amounts to about half the number of soldiers who were mobilized statewide Wednesday in the anticipation that Gustav would strike Louisiana.
Jindal said he was prepared to mobilize an additional 2,000 troops, meaning about half of the Louisiana National Guard members would be on active duty for the storm.
Louisiana Adjutant Gen. Bennett Landreneau said Thursday that a national agreement among state Guards around the country make more than 450,000 Guard troops available for deployment to any state that needs them.
National Guard leaders also requested 20 helicopters from eight states, apparently because Louisiana's 20 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters are in Iraq.
The National Guard set up satellite communications equipment in Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Orleans, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, Jindal's office said.
The Coast Guard, meanwhile, said it would begin withdrawing personnel and equipment, including helicopters, from the Gulf Coast today in preparation for re-entering storm-affected areas after Gustav passes.
Staff writers Bill Barrow, Nicole Dungca, Susan Finch, Meghan Gordon, Paul Purpura, Richard Rainey, Paul Rioux, Mark Schleifstein and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this article. John Pope can be reached email@example.com 504.826.3317. David Hammer can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org 504.826.3322. Michelle Krupa can be reached email@example.com 504.826.3312.