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."

Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Yaya Touré has defended his posturing over his future at Manchester City
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
Life and Style
There were mass celebrations across Argentina as the country's national team reached their first World Cup final for 24 years
transfersOne of the men to suffer cardiac arrest was 16 years old
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice