Gulf residents prepare for Gustav

While the actual track and strength of Tropical Storm Gustav is still uncertain, Gulf Coast states and disaster responders prepare for a potential disaster

BY PJ HELLER | NEW ORLEANS | August 28, 2008

With Tropical Storm Gustav expected to strengthen into a major hurricane and tracking toward the Gulf Coast — with a strike possible on the New Orleans area — faith-based organizations on Thursday were scrambling to prepare.

"The disaster response staff in New Orleans and Port Arthur (Texas) are literally battening down the hatches and moving our physical assets which can be moved, such as vehicles and tools, to higher ground," noted Katherine Kerr of Lutheran Social Services of the South in Austin, Texas. "We've identified churches that can be staging areas for whatever the appropriate response is."

Gustav left at least 50 people dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic when it roared ashore there as a hurricane, then weakened to a tropical storm. With winds just below hurricane strength on Thursday night, it was forecast to strengthen into a powerful storm as it approaches the U.S. Gulf Coast. Landfall could be anywhere from the Florida panhandle to the upper Texas coast line; tracking maps show the center striking just west of New Orleans by Monday or Tuesday.

Harvey Johnson, deputy administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the storm was "potentially going to be the largest hurricane to come to the United States and make landfall since Katrina."

The third anniversary of Katrina inundating New Orleans is today and the fact that another storm may soon be bearing on the region isn't lost on residents of the city.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions due to the fact that it's so close to the Katrina date," said Jessica Vermilyea, the Louisiana disaster response coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response. "It has people very concerned. It's that time of the year when people are emotional over the anniversary date."

Vermilyea said some residents were already heading out of town while others showed no sign of leaving.

"There are people who have lived here forever and want to stay put until they know it's a (Category) 3 and it's headed directly at them and there are people who have moved here since the storm or who have rebuilt and aren't anxious to stay and are getting out of town," she reported.

Federal, state and local agencies insist they are ready and better prepared to handle a major storm than they were three years ago. Faith-based organizations also report they are gearing up and will be ready to respond if needed.

"We really feel that we're very ready," said Kevin Massey, director of Lutheran Disaster Response. "We're taking steps here at ELCA headquarters to manage information and receive calls regarding donations and volunteering. We'll do regular check-ins with all our local coordinators as time goes.

"We certainly right now have the luxury of time to do the kinds of intensive planning that we always wish we would have in response to disasters because the storm remains many days out," he said.

At the same time, because of the uncertainty of where Gustav might make landfall, he said it was important "for a very wide circle of people to be involved in that planning and conversation."

As for Katrina volunteers working in the area, Massey noted that the last week in August and first week in September were typically the slowest times for interfaiths to bring in out-of-state volunteers. He said LDR did not have any out-of-state volunteers in the area and none were scheduled until later in September.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance said it "has taken steps to evacuate the Presbyterian Volunteer Villages in Louisiana and Mississippi" and that it "stands ready to respond to Hurricane Gustav."

Fred Visser, a disaster response services regional manager with CRWRC, said the organization was keeping a close eye on the storm.

"We will monitor any conference calls and we'll be ready to go," said Visser, who is responsible for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. "Right now we're just monitoring it."

Both Kerr and Vermilyea said lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were being put to good use in preparation for Gustav.

"We're taking it pretty seriously," Kerr said. "We learned a few things with Katrina."

"I think we're much better prepared than we were three years ago . . . we're about as prepared as we can be," Vermilyea added.

"People are in communication that weren’t in communication before," she noted. "There are long-term recovery organizations now in place within the parishes that are up and operational. There are networks of nonprofits, faith-based organizations, that now have connections and communication lines that weren’t there when we had Katrina.

"Nobody's looking forward to it," Vermilyea said of Gustav. "But people are in a much better place to be able to respond, and respond quickly and more efficiently and effectively, than we did with Katrina, irregardless of the size of the event. Whatever it is and however bad it might be, I think people are prepared as best they can be at this point."

A similar sentiment was echoed by officials from Church World Service.

"Since Hurricane Katrina, CWS has worked extensively along the U.S. Gulf Coast, building capacity among long-term recovery groups to prepare for future storms," it said. "CWS emergency response specialists will be in contact with recovery groups and emergency officials to assess needs, provide training, material resources and project development support."

CWS also said it was also prepared to support its partners in Haiti and the Dominican Republic as damage assessments were completed.

One of the biggest unknowns is how the New Orleans area would fare in a major storm.

"New Orleans doesn't need any testing of its levees although it would be nice to know that they work," Vermilyea said. "We certainly don’t want to know that they don’t. Obviously repairs have been made but that was all repaired to pre-storm events and not made any better than what it was prior to the storm for increased (hurricane) categories. And of course that capacity has not been tested. We know there are weak spots in that system that have been identified so there's certainly potential for flooding.

"We're in New Orleans," she said. "It's low. So even bad thunderstorm can cause us to have standing water. Anything of that magnitude causes us concern because of the water surge."

She said areas of major concern were the low-lying coastal areas around Plaquemines, Terrebonne and Houma.

"They have been so hard hit already and another event of this magnitude would continue to devastate those areas and all of the recovery work that had already been accomplished," Vermilyea said.

A devastating storm could deal a setback to those ongoing recovery efforts, she said.

"That is a concern," she said. "Right now we're just trying to focus on being prepared and making sure that people are prepared and getting out of town and securing what they do have . . . We'll deal with the aftermath of it, the recovery efforts, if need be. We hope that’s not the case. But certainly it's always a possibility."

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