New Orleans Braces For Gustav

Facing the threat posed by Gustav, New Orleans is trying to balance an evacuation plan with the need to not cause panic. Mark Schleifstein, of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, says models show the storm strengthening and potentially hitting New Orleans as a hurricane Monday.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Along the Gulf Coast, as the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, people are nervously watching the path of Gustav as the storm works its way across the Caribbean. The storm caused floods and mudslides that killed more than 20 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Gustav is expected to gain strength as it moves over the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters say it could turn into a Category 3 hurricane or stronger. As you can imagine, people in New Orleans are paying especially close attention to Gustav.

Among them, Mark Schleifstein - a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who joins us now. Mark, thanks for being with us.

BLOCK: Oh, thank you.

BLOCK: The path of this storm, I imagine, is unpredictable as they always are. What are you hearing about the timetable and a possible path of where Gustav might head?

BLOCK: Well, unfortunately, what we're looking in right here is another storm that's expected to blow up when it finally reaches the Gulf of Mexico and comes across. And it - the moment some of the models are showing it directly heading towards the New Orleans metropolitan area.

BLOCK: And any idea of timing?

BLOCK: Most of the models are showing it coming ashore as early as 8:00 Monday morning.

BLOCK: Of course, Mark, there was a lot of criticism after Katrina about evacuation plans that were not in place. This thing seem different this time.

BLOCK: Ironically, the same evacuation plans are in place. But I think people are more attuned to what they're supposed to do. And that basically is a three-stage evacuation plan where the coastal areas go first and the city goes last using a contraflow plan for getting people out on both sides of the highway as quick as possible.

BLOCK: And for people who don't have cars?

BLOCK: Well, that's still sort of the question. The state has contracts to bring in 700 buses, and they're also going to be using Amtrak to take people out.

BLOCK: You had an online chat today, Mark, with readers there in New Orleans. What are you hearing from people? What were they telling you?

BLOCK: Most people want to know when they should start thinking about evacuating. And people wanted to know what areas would be the worst hit and whether or not the levees would actually stop the storm surge from a major hurricane like this from affecting the city.

BLOCK: Well, that is a huge question, isn't it? Because the levees have been rebuilt - the levees that failed during Katrina. How much confidence is there in the rebuilding and what's been done?

BLOCK: It really depends on where people are. Ironically, on the West Bank, the area south of the city, things are actually better than they were before Katrina. There's actually more of the levee system in place. On the east side, St. Bernard Parish, they've done a good job of rebuilding the (unintelligible) levees in that area to a level about the same as what it was before Katrina, but the difference is that the material is much better. So it's not likely to blow away. And then in New Orleans proper in the western part of the city, where you have some walls that failed, you got gauge at the ends of the canals where those walls failed that will stop the storm surge from coming in. So that's pretty much (unintelligible).

BLOCK: It does raise a question, though, of people's anxiety level, and this has got to be reviving fears that probably aren't too far below the surface anyway of what happened three years ago.

BLOCK: It does. And the other thing to be concerned about is that if this does come in as a Category 3 or higher storm - the storm surge, even with all the new things that are put in place, the water would still be high enough that it would overtop all those levees and could still cause some significant flooding. But people are very, very concerned. Our reporters on the street yesterday were saying that some people were talking about, you know, when this come through - that, you know, they may just give up and move away.

BLOCK: Would you assume, are the people who stayed behind during Katrina would not make that mistake again - that they would evacuate?

BLOCK: We're hearing a little bit of both. The rules will be completely different this time. It will be made even more clear than before that if they stay behind, they won't even be able to call 911 for help. But many more people recognize that they need to get out.

BLOCK: Mark Schleifstein is a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Mark, thanks very much.

BLOCK: Thank you.

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