First hurricane of season forms as New Orleans remembers Katrina

Click to follow

A weekend of remembrance in New Orleans, one year after Katrina came ashore, was unexpectedly punctuated by fresh anxiety yesterday as the season's first named hurricane gained strength in the Caribbean, threatening to hit the United States later this week.

Forecasters said that the storm, named Ernesto, could reach Category 3 strength by late Wednesday, when it is likely to have passed into the Gulf of Mexico to the west of southern Florida. Last night, visitors to the Florida Keys were ordered to leave as soon as possible.

Tourists with immediate plans to travel to the island chain were told to postpone trips and those already there were told to evacuate. Strong rain and winds were already buffeting south-western Haiti, prompting fears of landslides in an area that has been heavily deforested. The Cayman Islands, Jamaica and eastern Cuba were also on alert as the storm moved westwards. "It's over nice, warm Caribbean waters, and far enough off the coast of Haiti that it is still strengthening," said Ron Goodman, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami.

The possibility of Ernesto marching north through the Gulf of Mexico this week is already getting the attention of New Orleans officials, where repairs to 220 miles of levees damaged by Katrina are yet to be finished.

Under new provisions, residents in low-lying districts would be evacuated 50 hours before landfall if a hurricane threatens the city "I will feel better when they are fully functional and complete, but it will take time," Kathleen Blanco, the Governor of Louisiana, said, referring to the levee repair effort. "We've gotten as far as we could in one year."

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of Katrina, which left 1,695 people dead, according to official estimates. Large swaths of New Orleans remain uninhabited a year after the disaster, remembered not only for the destruction but also the sluggish initial response of the federal authorities.

While rebuilding is under way in New Orleans and along the Mississippi coast, there is new concern that federal reconstruction assistance has been too slow. "We're seeing the same thing with the recovery as we did with the immediate response. We're going through another unfolding disaster," Mary Landrieu, a US Senator for Louisiana, told The Los Angeles Times.

Of the $110bn (£58.3bn) allotted for reconstruction, about $44bn has been spent, with thousands of people still waiting for aid to rebuild their homes.