NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) — Exactly three years after deadly Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans, authorities on Friday began bussing people out of the city ahead of the possible landfall of Gustav, forecast to hit the area early Tuesday as a powerful Category Three hurricane.
Residents of the Big Easy were fearing the worst as Gustav regained hurricane strength on its deadly rampage through the Caribbean, where it has killed at least 78 in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
President George W. Bush on Friday declared a state of emergency in Louisiana and Texas, empowering federal authorities to lead disaster relief efforts in the two states, the White House said.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans on August 29, 2005 as a Category Three hurricane and smashed poorly-built levees surrounding the city. The subsequent flooding destroyed tens of thousands of homes and killed nearly 1,500 people.
Bush's approval ratings at the time plummeted amid widespread criticism that he paid too little attention to Katrina.
Louisiana and Mississippi state authorities have already declared emergencies, and several oil companies evacuated workers from their installations in the Gulf of Mexico, where a quarter of US crude oil is produced, as Gustav loomed.
The United States could tap its strategic oil reserve if Gustav damages oil installations in the Gulf, a Department of Energy spokeswoman said Friday.
State and city officials have vowed to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2005.
Officials in Saint Charles parish, in western New Orleans, on Friday began bussing out residents who want to leave the city.
While the evacuations were voluntary, authorities in all six New Orleans parishes were planning mandatory evacuations starting noon Saturday if Gustav remains on the same path.
Saint Charles officials "are extremely concerned about storm surge flooding" that Gustav would cause, read a statement from the office of Parish President V.J. St. Pierre.
"The entire parish remains at risk," St. Pierre wrote. "All residents should be taking steps to secure their homes and prepare for evacuation NOW."
Separately, the Red Cross announced it is preparing to assist residents in the storm's path with evacuation shelters, food, and other services.
Hurricane Gustav is forecast to make landfall early Tuesday just west of New Orleans, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
There is "a very distinct possibility" that it will strike the area as a powerful Category Three hurricane, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen told AFP.
Category Three hurricanes pack wind speeds of up to 130 miles (209 kilometers) per hour and nine to 12-foot (2.7-3.7-meter) storm surges.
Many New Orleans residents are preparing for the worst.
"This is driving me nuts," said Liese Dettmer. "It's like double down or get out."
A musician and club booking agent, Dettmer lost everything in Katrina, and was set to mark the third anniversary by moving into her new home in the Musicians Village, a community designed for displaced musicians to help restore the jazz city's culture.
But because of delays she and 28 other families must wait until September 5 to move in -- provided Gustav spares New Orleans.
Dettmer was one of many New Orleanians who evacuated at the last moment before Katrina hit on August 29, 2005.
She rented a car and drove to her parents home in Tennessee at 2:00 am on Sunday August 28, barely 24 hours before Katrina's outer edge reached the city.
Dettmer's mid-city apartment of 12 years was flooded. The roof was ripped off by high winds and she lost everything.
"I am in a complete state of panic," said Mary Clancy, a professor of biology who lost a subzero freezer full of enzymes when power went out for months after Katrina. "I still can't bring myself to throw out those tubes."
Clancy's laboratory building still isn't ready for another major storm. It was slated to get a rooftop generator to protect against loss of research materials due to power failure. It hasn't been installed.
"We're supposed to get a temporary generator before the weekend," Clancy said. "It's not here yet," she said, sighing. "This (storm) can't happen."
Mayor Ray Nagin said Wednesday that nobody would be allowed to stay in New Orleans should Gustav achieve its forecasted strength and path. "Everyone will be getting out," he said on CNN.
Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu told Fox Business Network that state and city authorities have been holding emergency meetings "for the last three or four days.
"The state police, the national guard, everybody is ready to go," he said.
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