New Orleans' hurricane drill gets first dry run

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The Independent US

The Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, led the city in a series of emergency drills and mock evacuations yesterday ahead of the hurricane season. Meteorologists have warned that the coming storm season could include six major storms.

Mr Nagin, re-elected at the weekend despite coming under criticism for his handling of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast last summer killing more than a thousand people, led a series of drills within the city yesterday. State and federal authorities in Baton Rouge also participated, tracking a "virtual" hurricane named Alicia that was bearing down on both Texas and New Orleans.

"I want you to know Louisiana is prepared for the next storm," Governor Kathleen Blanco, who was also criticised for her role in dealing with Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, told reporters. "There is no work more important to the state than protecting our citizens during hurricane season."

In New Orleans, around 80 people played the part of evacuees, boarding buses and heading to the city's convention centre, where they were tagged with wristbands to help track them.

In a real emergency, new plans call for such people to be moved to shelters elsewhere in Louisiana or out of state. In the aftermath of Katrina, the convention centre and the nearby Superdome turned into scenes of filthy, fetid and dangerous chaos as thousands of people, mostly poor and black, were forced to wait for days without running water, lavatories or air conditioning.

While some one million people left the city before last year's storm, the authorities were condemned for failing to have adequate plans to evacuate the elderly, the sick and those without transport. Mr Nagin's campaign for re-election focused on trying to persuade people that such chaos would not be allowed to happen again.

The authorities say any evacuation would be easier now because there are fewer people living in the city than there were last year. Less than half of the city's 455,000 residents before Katrina struck have returned to New Orleans.

But experts have warned that the still-vulnerable city could face new problems this summer with an Atlantic hurricane season that could produce 16 named storms.

Last year there were 28 named storms, 15 of which were rated as hurricanes. This year is not expected to be as severe, but the National Hurricane Centre director, Max Mayfield, said: "One hurricane hitting where you live is enough to make it a bad season."

Meteorologists said that the Atlantic waters are not as warm as they were this time last year, suggesting that forthcoming storms will not be so strong.

Last year forecasters initially predicted there would be 12 to 15 tropical storms, with nine of them turning into hurricanes. But the storm season, which runs from 1 June to 30 November, broke records dating back to 1851.

Scientists investigating the failure of levees, which caused New Orleans to be swamped, are seeking a complete change of the country's levee-building system.