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Today, New Orleans is holding a ceremonial burial service for more than 80 unidentified victims of Hurricane Katrina, which came ashore three years ago today. But with rough weather bearing down, the city has canceled most other commemorations today. City and state officials are now focused on a new threat, Tropical Storm Gustav, which forecasters say could develop into a major hurricane. NPR's Greg Allen is in New Orleans.
GREG ALLEN: New Orleans has prepared for hurricanes before, but never like this. For days now, ever since Gustav was identified as a threat to the Gulf Coast, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has given detailed updates of what the state's doing to get ready. Louisiana has contracted 700 buses, a fleet that can evacuate as many as 35,000 people from the city. It has nearly 200 ambulances. It's identified 78,000 shelter beds, pre-positioned hundreds of thousands of pre-packaged meals and liters of water. At a briefing in New Orleans last night, Jindal said more than 1500 Louisiana National Guard troops would be in New Orleans by today.
BOBBY JINDAL: They'll be arriving in New Orleans to assist in securing the city, to help our citizens, to make sure that they are prepared to begin evacuating their homes, should this evacuation - when this evacuation is triggered.
ALLEN: Forecasters say this far out, it's difficult to know where on the Gulf Coast Gustav will hit, or how strong will it be. Although landfall is not expected before Monday, Jindal said phased evacuation beginning with low-lying parishes could begin as early as today. Standing with Jindal at the briefing in New Orleans was Mayor Ray Nagin, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and FEMA head David Paulison. Paulison said actions being taken now, before the storm, where things that happened after the storm three years ago during Katrina.
DAVID PAULISON: Buses are here now, not after the storm. Ambulances are here now, not after the storm. Urban search and rescue teams are here now, not after the storm. Communications equipment, generators, are here now, not after the storm. This is a total change from what we did in the past, and what we're doing now.
ALLEN: There is one important thing in New Orleans, though, that's still not ready for powerful hurricane, and that's the city's flood-control system. Although billions of dollars have been spent raising levees, repairing flood walls, and installing flood gates on the canals, there's still much more work to be done. With Gustav approaching, contractors with the Army Corps of Engineers are working feverishly to fill in the gaps.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)
ALLEN: On this section of industrial canal near Lake Pontchartrain, work crews are using backhoes and bulldozers to fill huge baskets with sand. It's a stopgap effort to shore up a section of the levee where repairs aren't yet complete, and which is still vulnerable to storm surge. Several blocks away, in the Gentilly neighborhood, Jermaine Thompson (ph) was picking up hurricane supplies at a Rouses supermarket. I asked him if he was taking the talk of the mandatory city-wide evacuation seriously.
JERMAINE THOMPSON: Taking it serious enough. I've been through Katrina. So, I was here on my roof, so I'm taking it serious enough.
ALLEN: What are you doing to get ready?
THOMPSON: Just getting what you've got to get, you know what I'm saying? Get your supplies and everything, and your water, and all that, make sure you've got gas and your - make sure you got it straight. So, when the time to come leave, you got to strip and just leave, you know? That's about it.
ALLEN: You heard the talk about mandatory evacuation. Think that's possible?
THOMPSON: Might be. If it is, I will be going.
ALLEN: There are plenty of signs that people in New Orleans are not taking Gustav lightly. Mayor Nagin says about 50,000 people stayed behind during Katrina, a storm in which nearly 2,000 people died. This time, if there's a mandatory evacuation, he hopes to get everyone out of the city. Anyone who's thinking about ignoring an evacuation, he says, should consider today's anniversary and the commemoration of the city's unknown victims.
RAY NAGIN: We will be burying 80 bodies from Hurricane Katrina. This is serious business, and we would not be calling for a mandatory evacuation unless we thought there was a serious threat. And I think most people will heed to that.
ALLEN: But Nagin says there's another consideration. If state and local authorities order mandatory evacuation it's important he says, that they be firm but flexible.
NAGIN: This is a different type of event. This is coming on the heels of the worst natural manmade disaster, and there's still lots of people dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder.
ALLEN: State and local authorities say they'll be watching Gustav's development, and may announce a timetable for evacuation later today. Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.
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