Braced for disaster: the city that fears the worst – again

Those who ignored warnings to flee are under lockdown as they await 'the mother of all storms'

New Orleans awakes this morning as a city under lockdown, braced for the worst that Hurricane Gustav can throw at it. Hundreds of thousands of people have already jammed on to the freeways, their cars packed bumper to bumper, to flee the danger zone. Others have decided to tough it out with armed soldiers patrolling the battened-down neighbourhoods and a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Staying or going, they all share the same fear: that this will be Hurricane Katrina all over again, only worse.

Gustav was churning its way across the Gulf of Mexio last night and was expected to make landfall along the coast of Louisiana around lunchtime today, threatening to bring disaster once more to this wounded region

"It's rough. That's all I can say. Real rough," said George Thien as he packed his wife and four children into a Dodge truck a stone's throw from the potentially deadly waters of Mississippi river. "Last time, we had to spend two years with relatives in Texas before it was safe to come back. And when we returned, our house had no roof. We've just put our lives back together, and been living here 12 months again, and now this. It hurts, you know, but you've got to get on with it."

Mr Thien is one of an estimated million people in a hit-zone that stretches from the Florida panhandle to the eastern tip of Texas who have left their homes and headed for safer ground to the north and east.

Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, mindful of the 1,800 residents who died in 2005 when the river breached sea defences and engulfed 80 per cent of the city, called Gustav "the mother of all storms" and urged people to "get their butts moving". He announced a mandatory evacuation starting at 8am yesterday and at sundown last night imposed a curfew.

Gustav has swept across the Caribbean in the past week, from Jamaica to Haiti to Cuba, killing more than 80 people. It reached Category 4 on the five-point scale of severity in the early hours of Sunday near Cuba. Although it later eased to Category 3, the hurricane was expected to rev up again as it roared across the warm waters of the Gulf. The latest weather models predicted that it would head 50 miles or so west of the Mississippi, but in a worst-case scenario it could turn east, and dump 20 inches of rain in a matter of hours on New Orleans.

People's fear of that worst-case scenario, etched in their faces as the storm clouds gathered this weekend, is simple: Gustav could produce a tidal surge of up to 24 feet. The levees that protect low-lying areas of New Orleans from the flood waters of the ocean or the Mississippi are between nine and 14 feet high, and the sea walls on either of the city are 17.5 feet and 23 feet. If any of these are breached, things get nasty.

On the western side of the city, where the impact of today's storm is likely to be felt hardest, the levees are only 20 per cent complete, and the $13bn (£7bn) construction programmed designed to give the city full protection will not be complete until 2011.

Katrina was a disaster but Gustav could be apocalyptic. New Orleans remains deeply scarred from the events of 2005, and large areas remain derelict. The population of the city and the surrounding area is still 20 per cent down on pre-Katrina levels. In the Lower Ninth ward, the disadvantaged black neighbourhood that bore the brunt of Katrina, residents, who are largely too poor to be able to afford cars, formed long queues yesterday to join the 700 buses that will transport them inland. Where the 20,000 refugees will stay is anyone's guess – hotels are full all the way north to Arkansas – but they will at least be out of harm's way.

At some pick-up points, fights broke out among fractious evacuees whose tempers became frayed in the near-100F (38C) heat – and 70 per cent humidity – of the Louisiana summer. Unconfirmed reports of shootings were carried on local news channels.

Many of those in the Lower Ninth yesterday have learnt since Katrina to fend for themselves, and were preparing for the worst. "I have packed a gun," said A J Barrios, one of many standing patiently in line next to a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. "I hope and pray not to have to use it, but it could get nasty out there. If you've got a gun, then it's got to be worth taking it with you, right? I don't see problems in the bus, or on the interstate, but you never know?"

About 1,500 National Guard troops are in control of the city, charged with preventing the chaos and looting that followed Katrina. Last night, the streets were empty, save small groups of police officers, National Guard soldiers, and swarms of rats that no longer have to scuttle from passing pedestrians.

The Mayor has warned in no uncertain terms that anyone who stays behind does so at their own risk and can expect no help from authorities. Yet tens of thousands intend to barricade themselves indoors with supplies of food and water. They have lived through one hurricane, they say, and this time, they know how to get by.

America's politicians, whose botched rescue efforts turned Katrina into a national tragedy, also seemed to have learnt from the past. Mayor Nagin started telling people to evacuate on Thursday. President Bush declared a state of emergency on Friday. More than 6,000 trailers, the portable homes most vulnerable to high winds, have been cleared. Shops, homes and many small businesses have properly boarded themselves up this time.

Even the French Quarter, the historic and hedonistic heart of New Orleans where jazz music was invented, and where the 200-year old buildings stand in genteel decay, is taking the threat seriously.

Staying put: Dawn Kesserlin

After the horrors of being evacuated last time around, Dawn Kesserlin, a barmaid, is determined to stay put.

"During Katrina, I left for one reason, and that was to find safer conditions for my children. But my children are now in Chicago so I'm going to stay and sit it out. In 2005, people were back here fixing this place up within two weeks of the storm and I couldn't get back for two months. So now I have an opportunity to help out back here, and I'm going to take it. She works at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter and knows plenty of people who are staying behind. They have been making extensive preparations for weathering the storm.

"We've shared phone numbers and addresses. I've got 30 gallons of water and provisions for four weeks in my house. Other people have generators. We will network to get by. That's what people in Florida do all the time."

Getting out: Canye Thomas

When Katrina struck, Canye Thomas, 32, stayed behind to weather the storm and protect her home in the Lower Ninth ward from looters. It was a decision that very nearly cost her life.

"I broke on to my roof, which was the only place where I could stay clear of the water, and ended up staying there almost three weeks," she said. "I had no food, and only a tiny bit of water, and only survived by the grace of God."

This time, she's getting out. "As soon as I heard about Gustav, I decided to go. There's no way I'm going to risk what happened last time, even if it means staying in a refugee camp for a month. At least I'll be able to drink water, and lie down out of the sun."

She was one of thousands of New Orleans residents queuing up for a seat on buses the city has hired to take citizens to safety. "I've been waiting for three hours and nothing has come. From where I am now, this is no better than Katrina. They tell you one thing, and then when you get here, they tell you something different. We're feeling like the forgotten people here."

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