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Gulf residents urged to flee Gustav

Disaster response organizations prepare for needs of evacuees and for the potential of new damage to same area battered by Katrina/Rita in 2005.

MERIDIAN, MS | August 31, 2008

Gulf Coast residents in Louisiana and Mississippi were warned Sunday to leave home ahead of Hurricane Gustav. Declaring Gustav is the "mother of all storms," Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans ordered mandatory evacuations Sunday morning.

Gustav weakened overnight, but forecasters said Sunday morning they expect the storm to grow stronger during the next 24 hours as it travels over warm Gulf waters and predict it could make landfall as an intense Category three or four hurricane.

As thousands of residents of coastal communities clogged highways driving away from the coast, disaster response organizations were finalizing plans to respond when the storm arrived.

Anticipating the storm, the City of New Orleans and state emergency officials arranged for hundreds of buses and trains to evacuate residents who were unable to drive out of the city. Lines of people waiting for buses and trains stretched for blocks beginning Friday afternoon.

Residents who had cars, clogged highways out of coastal communities Saturday and Sunday. But those travelers who had not filled up their gas tanks before leaving were finding few stations open by Saturday afternoon as supplies ran out.

The National Hurricane Center said Sunday that if Gustav stays on its current track, the storm surge could be 12 to 16-feet above normal tidal levels, which could, depending upon when the storm reaches landfall, overwhelm the incomplete levee system built following Hurricane Katrina.

Equally worrisome for disaster responders is the possibility that the storm could stall shortly after making landfall and dump significant rainfall in an area that has been hit with a number of floods this year. Weather forecasters said six to 12-inches of rain is expected in most areas with some regions receiving as much as 20-inches.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour issued an evacuation order for those living in mobile homes and trailers in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties Saturday. Shelters have been established in Meridian, Jackson, Laurel and other locations farther north.

In the Gulf region, the Christian Reform World Relief Committee (CRWRC) is one of more than a dozen disaster response organizations that have spent the past few days securing current projects in anticipation of the storm.

Bill Adams, the director of Disaster Response for the CRWRC said the conditions could worsen for a lot of structures in the region still compromised by Katrina and Rita. If heavy rains pound the region, which usually occurs with any hurricane, those buildings could be damaged.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which works in partnership with United Methodist annual (regional) conferences and has been very active in the Gulf Coast since Katrina and Rita in 2005 has also prepared for the potential of Gustav.

The Conferences “have put together their plans, and they are following those plans right now,” said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s associate general secretary for U.S. Domestic Disaster Response.

If Gustav does hit the coast, as damage assessments are completed, Hazelwood said his organization will be assisting annual conferences. UMCOR has a warehouse in Baldwin, La., to help with the recovery if and when supplies are needed.

“UMCOR will be there,” he added.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which has invested in several facilities for disaster response volunteers, said Friday it had evacuated those centers after securing them against the expected storm.

"We're in New Orleans," said Jessica Vermilyea, the Louisiana disaster response coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response. "It's low. So even bad thunderstorms 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."

State Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) have also put preparation plans in place so their members will be able to respond appropriately.

“We do have a plan for recovery,“ said Sandra Braasch, the vice-president of VOAD and the director of disaster preparedness and response for Lutheran Episcopal Services of Mississippi. “Now we are waiting. We’re as prepared as we can be. We are just watching the news.”

About 150 patients from hospitals in southwestern Louisiana were evacuated to Oklahoma City. Oklahomans were being urged by the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management to stay out of the Gulf region as the evacuees head north.

Instead, Oklahomans were urged to give to relief organizations of their choice to help with efforts in the aftermath of the storm.

BOND BRUNGARD and PJ HELLER contributed to this story.

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