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Post-Katrina Evacuation Procedures Praised

The downtown streets of New Orleans are deserted as Hurricane Gustav approaches on Monday, Sept. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Gerald Weaver)
AP Photo/Gerald Weaver
As a nervous nation watched to see if Gustav would deliver another Katrina-style hit on the partially-rebuilt city, officials steadfastly insisted three years of planning and infrastructure upgrades had prepared them for whatever was to come.

Tens of thousands of people were evacuated by local and state government over the past two days, part of a mammoth exodus of nearly 2 million people.

The massive effort was aimed at avoiding a terrible toll as was suffered in 2005 when nearly 1,600 people lost their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"We don't expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina," Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson told The Associated Press. "But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged severely."

Hurricane Gustav brought torrential rains and winds to the region on Monday morning, weakening slightly to a Category 2 hurricane as it made landfall near Cocodrie, La. A direct hit on flood-prone New Orleans was avoided, boosting hope that the city would avoid catastrophic flooding.

Residents for the most part heeded officials' pleas to flee. Reports are that there are as few as 10,000 people left in New Orleans itself - far fewer than were crammed into the Superdome three years ago - and only 100,000 along southern Louisiana.

"By all accounts the vast majority of people who were supposed to evacuate did so," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who is overseeing operations from Baton Rouge, told CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith this morning.

"Today there's not much we can do at Ground Zero. But we can make sure everybody is squared away in their shelters, they're warm, comfortable, all medical needs are being taken care of.

"As the storm leaves, we will go in immediately and conduct search and rescue in case there are people who have been stranded."

On the high ground in the French Quarter, nasty winds whipped signs and the purple, green and gold Mardi Gras flags hanging from cast-iron balconies. Like the rest of the city, the Quarter's normally boisterous streets were deserted save for a police standing watch every few blocks and a few early-morning drinkers in the city's famous bars.

"We wanted to be part of a historic event," said Benton Love, 30, stood outside Johnny White's Sports Bar with a whiskey and Diet Coke. "We knew Johnny White's would be the place to be. We'll probably switch to water about 10 o'clock, sober up, and see if we can help out."

Those who heeded the days of warnings to get out watched from shelters and hotel rooms hundreds of miles away, praying the powerful storm and its 110-mph winds would pass without the same deadly toll.

"We're nervous, but we just have to keep trusting in God that we don't get the water again," said Lyndon Guidry, who hit the road for Florida just a few months after he was able to return to his home in New Orleans. "We just have to put our faith in God."

With the downgrading of the hurricane, a spokesman for Mayor Nagin said people would be allowed to return to the city in between 24 to 36 hours.

The Lessons Learned

Chertoff said the most important lessons learned from Katrina that have been applied in the case of Gustav are "Planning, preparation, and moving early. Because we have planned together and prepared together and because this process was begun by the governors and the parish presidents probably 24 to 36 hours [later] in the case of Katrina, it gave us the ability to deal with unexpected problems that arose and we could focus on people with medical needs who were a challenging population to evacuate.

In an effort to show the nation shocked by his administration's bungled handling of the Katrina crisis that Gustav would not be a repeat, President Bush headed to Texas to visit a staging ground for emergency response efforts and a shelter for Gulf Coast evacuees.

Chertoff said search and rescue would be the top priority once the storm passed: high-water vehicles, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, Coast Guard cutters and a Navy vessel that is essentially a floating emergency room were posted around the strike zone.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency to ensure that people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama continue to receive their health care items and services even after they leave their homes.

FEMA's second-in-command says there's enough food, water, ice and other supplies stockpiled for 1 million victims over the next three days.

A Flood Of Evacuees

The brutal memories of Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and killed more than 1,600 along the Gulf Coast, led officials to aggressively insist everyone in Gustav's path to flee from shore. As the storm grew near, the streets of the city were empty - save for National Guardsmen and just about every officer on the city's police force standing watch for looters.

In all, nearly 2 million people left south Louisiana, as did tens of thousands from coastal Mississippi, Alabama and southeastern Texas.

Even presidential politics took a back seat to the storm, as the Republican Party scaled back its convention plans in deference to Gustav's threat.

Mindful of the government's inept response to Katrina, President George W. Bush headed to Texas this morning, where he visited with emergency response personnel at an operations center in Austin.

Mr. Bush said he wants to ensure that assets are in place to handle the storm, and preparations are being made to help the Gulf Coast recover.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Mr. Bush (left, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry), said the federal government's job is to assist states affected by the storm.

"To that end, I feel good," Mr. Bush said. "The coordination on this storm is a lot better than during Katrina. A lot of it had to do with governors."

He lauded Gulf Coast residents who heeded warnings to evacuate, saying he knows it's hard for citizens to "pull up stakes," and thanked other states for welcoming evacuees.

"This storm has yet to pass," Mr. Bush said. "It's a serious event."

The president said he would visit Louisiana as soon as practical, when his entourage's presence would not impede upon evacuation and rescue efforts.

"I feel a little nervous about the storm and exactly where it's going to end up, but I also feel real good about the resources," Nagin said. "Man, if we have resources, we can move mountains."

Tropical storm-force winds had reached the southeastern tip of the state early Monday morning, but local officials said they had not received any distress calls or reports of unexpected flooding.

In Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, officials built an emergency levee to prevent flooding along a highway that runs along the Mississippi River channel, sheriff's spokesman Maj. John Marie said.

But it was extremely quiet early Monday morning. "It's really remarkable, we got almost everybody out," he said.

Deputies went door-to-door and identified about 12 people who planned to ride out the storm.

"When you have a kid in their 20s, he feels invincible," Marie said. "We have the reverse problem: We have elderly folks who have been through so many storms, they think they'll be fine. This one is a little more dangerous."

Fears of another Katrina led Nagin and Gov. Bobby Jindal to order a massive evacuation that succeeded in removing 90 percent of the population, or roughly 1.9 million people, from southern Louisiana. It continued late into the evening hours Sunday, with Jindal issuing a final plea to the estimated 100,000 people who decided to stay and ride out the storm.

"If you've not evacuated, please do so," Jindal said. "There are still a few hours left."

Adam Woods didn't need the reminder. A Coast Guard helicopter plucked him off his roof after Katrina struck, and this time, he and his lab mix Mandela headed to the city's Union Station for a ride out of town.

"I've got oxygen in my lungs," the 53-year-old landscaper said. "Remember, you've got to be alive to have problems."

The final train out of New Orleans left with fewer than 100 people on board, while one of the last buses to make the rounds of the city pulled into Union Station empty. Every officer in the department was on duty as police made their final rounds around 7 p.m.

"When the 911 calls start coming in, we'll know how many people are left in town," said police superintendent Warren Riley.

The city's emergency medical service had received only 26 calls as of midnight Monday, a fraction of what they received on the night before Katrina, spokesman Jeb Tate said.

Jeffrey Carreras was among those staying behind. Looters wreaked havoc in his neighborhood restaurant in the days after Katrina struck and despite promises of police protection, he wasn't willing to leave his business a second time.

"I have shotguns, rifles. I collect guns actually," Carreras said. "So I have plenty of guns in there, plenty of ammo."

New Orleans Police report having made 17 arrests, including one for carjacking and one for armed robbery, both before evacuation began.

Three people were arrested for illegal possession of firearms, two for domestic violence and the rest for misdemeanors.

Nobody has been arrested for looting.

Mississippi Shelters Filled With Gustav Evacuees

Mississippi shelters are filled with Louisiana residents seeking refuge from powerful Hurricane Gustav.

Fears of another Katrina led officials to order a massive evacuation that removed 90 percent of the population from southern Louisiana.

In Mississippi, the Red Cross shelter at Richland High School was among those that had to turn away evacuees as early as Sunday afternoon.

Central Mississippi Red Cross CEO Mary Hammett Hamilton says metro-area Red Cross facilities were full by early Sunday evening.

She says there are about 2,500 people in shelters, and her agency was working with area churches and governments to find more space.

Madison County emergency operations director Butch Hammack says there are more evacuees than he's ever seen.

FEMA's Post-Storm Locator System

A new Federal Emergency Management Agency locator system has been set up to help people displaced by Hurricane Gustav get in touch with family members.

People who sign up with the National Emergency Family Registry Locator can let up to seven people access their information, including ways to contact them.

A special section is set aside specifically for missing children too.

It's a response to the chaos that reigned in 2005, when an estimated 18,000 people were reported lost immediately after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma slammed into the Gulf Coast and Florida.

People can sign up at FEMA's Web site, FEMA.gov, or by calling toll-free at (800) 588-9822.