Post-Katrina test looms for fragile levee system

NEW ORLEANS - With a historic evacuation of nearly 2 million people from the Louisiana coast complete, gun-toting police and National Guardsmen stood watch on this city's empty streets last night in a preamble to a powerful storm that officials said could overwhelm the levee system still not completely repaired after Hurricane Katrina's damage three years ago.

As heavy rain began falling in the city last night, National Weather Service forecasters predicted that the hurricane would make landfall late this morning near Morgan City, La., 70 miles west of New Orleans. But powerful winds were expected to pummel the city well before then.

Gustav was expected to crash into land as a dangerous Category 3 storm, somewhat diminished from earlier predictions but still packing winds over 115 mph and capable of kicking up 14-foot storm surges and dumping up to 20 inches of rain.

The forecast meant that New Orleans will lie on the hurricane's eastern - and most dangerous - side, where the counterclockwise forward motion of the storm could test unfinished or aging levees, bursting some and overtopping others.

Levee failures caused by Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, leading to the deaths of more than 1,800 people and the loss of at least 100,000 homes.

But with the precise landfall location still uncertain, as well as the chance of a last-minute turn to the left or right, the weather service issued hurricane warnings stretching more than 500 miles from High Island, Texas, to the Alabama-Florida state line. Authorities estimated that nearly 2 million residents of coastal Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were clogging roadways leading inland all day yesterday.

In New Orleans, although a handful of stragglers vowed to stay - a few dozen participants went ahead with an annual gay parade in the French Quarter - every neighborhood of the city of 310,000 looked like a ghost town in advance of Gustav's arrival.

Similarly, on an otherwise deserted commercial block of downtown Lafayette, about 135 miles west of New Orleans, Tim Schooler removed the awnings from his photography studio. He thought about leaving yesterday before deciding he was better off riding out the storm at home with his wife, Nona.

"There's really no place to go. All the hotels are booked up to Little Rock and beyond," he said. "We're just hoping for the best."

For the first time in Louisiana's history, Gov. Bobby Jindal opened all lanes of interstate highways in the western and eastern parts of the state to "contraflow," or outgoing traffic, to facilitate the mass evacuations. State police officials said they believed 1.9 million, or more than 90 percent, of coastal Louisiana residents had fled inland, marking a record-setting evacuation. Thousands more had left from Mississippi, Alabama and flood-prone southeast Texas.

Jindal issued one last plea late yesterday to the roughly 100,000 people still on the coast: "If you've not evacuated, please do so. There are still a few hours left."

In New Orleans, city officials said they had helped more than 18,000 infirm or impoverished residents flee, raising confidence that there would be no repeat of the human disaster that followed Katrina, when tens of thousands of residents were left stranded.

"It's amazing. It makes me feel really good that so many people are saying, 'We as Americans, we as the world, have to get this right this time,' " New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said late last night. "We cannot afford to screw up again."

Officials backed away from earlier estimates that up to 30,000 residents might need help in leaving and said they felt they had reached everyone who required assistance. But some activists, while generally praising the city's evacuation efforts, expressed fears that mentally troubled residents might have been left behind because no door-to-door notification effort was made.

By late afternoon, with a dusk-to-dawn curfew set to take effect, the only signs of life in the city were about 3,000 police and National Guard troops patrolling against looters - a show of force intended to prevent a reprise of the lawlessness ensued after Katrina.

"Anybody who is caught looting will go directly to [the state prison at] Angola - directly to the big house, in general population," Nagin warned. "And God bless you when you get there."

At the city's central bus station yesterday morning, officials loaded the last residents who needed assistance onto outbound buses headed for northern Louisiana. Some stepped into line carrying just a single possession: a battered green suitcase, a plastic bag holding a single shirt, a parrot in a wire cage.

"We don't care where we go. We just want to get out," said David Henderson, 50.

The final train out of town left with fewer than 100 people on board, while one of the last buses to make the rounds of the city pulled into Union Station empty. By 7 p.m., police were making their final rounds. Every officer in the department was on duty, and 1,200 on the street were joined by 1,500 National Guardsmen.

On historic St. Charles Avenue in the Uptown section of the city, Elliott Thomas leaned over a fence outside his cousin's boarded-up house and gazed in wonder at the abandoned neighborhood before him.

Thomas, 63, said he had decided to stay and ride out the storm to help his cousin care for a 90-year-old uncle who was too infirm to travel.

"I understand why people are leaving - this city takes on water when hurricanes come," Thomas said. "But we're on high ground here. We didn't flood during Katrina. We're just praying and hoping this one doesn't come in as bad as they think it could be."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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