Ghost town New Orleans braces for Hurricane Gustav

September 1st, 2008 - 11:07 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Sep 1 (DPA) Nearly three years to the day of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans, the city and region were bracing for another disaster as Hurricane Gustav bore down Sunday across the Gulf of Mexico.Even before Gustav, considered the mother of all hurricanes, was to hit the US Gulf Coast later Monday, three people were dead during evacuation of seriously ill people from nursing homes and hospitals, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said.

The region was bracing for Gustav’s arrival by noon (1500 GMT) Monday as a category 3 storm on the 1-to-5 Saffir-Simpson scale. The storm had lost some of its earlier category 4 punch, National Hurricane Center officials said, but it could gather strength again as it slowed down across the Gulf’s warm waters.

At 0005 GMT Monday, Gustav was about 280 km southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, packing winds of 185 km an hour.

“Some intensification is forecast tonight, and Gustav is forecast to be a major hurricane until landfall,” the centre said.

New Orleans was a ghost town as about 95 percent of its 300,000 residents followed Mayor Ray Nagin’s demand that they get their “butts out of New Orleans right now”.

“You need to be scared,” Nagin said. “This is the storm of the century.”

Along the entire Gulf coast, up to one million people had fled in private vehicles or in bus, train and plane transport organised for the 18,000 of New Orleans who had no means of transport of their own. Only an estimated 10,000 people remained in the city of jazz, Jindal estimated.

Oil drilling rigs were evacuated and shut down across the Gulf of Mexico, cutting off one-quarter of US oil production and a good fraction of its natural gas production, said Kevin Kolevar of the US Department of Energy. The area normally also takes in 56 percent of US oil imports through the Gulf.

Crude oil prices for October delivery rose $1.52, or 1.3 percent, to $116.98 per barrel in after-hours electronic trading, according to the Bloomberg news agency.

Governor Jindal raised the strong possibility that levees, many of them rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, would not withstand what meteorologists called would be an “extremely dangerous storm surge” of three to five metres above normal.

“If the storm shifts slightly to the east, we could have significant flooding,” Jindal said. He noted the danger that Lake Pontchartrain or the Mississippi River posed with a huge storm surge.

In 2005, New Orleans thought it had escaped when the storm made landfall elsewhere, until the lake brimmed over and broke through the city’s dam system.

By late Sunday, Gustav was hurling heavy rainfall into the region and several tornado warnings were given.

The approaching storm played havoc with Republican Party plans to nominate Senator John McCain as their presidential candidate. Monday’s opening session would be reduced to a roll call, certification of delegates and adoption of the party platform and rules, instead of the usual political rhetoric.

“We are facing a great national challenge, the possibility of a great national natural disaster,” McCain said.

Campaign speeches by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were cancelled as Bush heads to Texas Monday, to be near one of the centres for rescue and recovery operations.

“Do not put yourself in harm’s way, or make rescue workers take unnecessary risks,” Bush said in Washington.

In 2005, Katrina killed 1,800 people in the region, most of them in New Orleans, and gave US President George W. Bush one of the blackest marks of his administration for delayed response to tens of thousands stranded in the city as flood waters rose.

Bush was on vacation as storm warnings were made, and he came under fire for his absence and expression of support of the then-FEMA director.

“I have every expectation that we will not see the mistakes of Katrina repeated,” McCain said.

Mayor Nagin ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew and doubled police and national guard numbers. He warned that looters would be taken immediately to the “big house” prison in the Angola area of New Orleans, instead of being held in the local jails and let off easy as they were in 2005.

An Air Force official said it had mobilised 13 large transport planes, one of them donated by Canada, to move about 1,300 seriously ill patients Sunday.

On its way to the US Gulf Coast, Gustav cut a sheath of destruction across the Caribbean, leaving 80 dead and destroying parts of western Cuba. Cuba evacuated 300,000 people as winds reached more than 240 km an hour, or category 4.

“It was the most destructive and terrifying storm in the past 50 years,” wrote the Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina.

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