Patrik Jonsson

Is New Orleans Really Ready for Gustav?

Editor's Note: Check here for the latest information on Gustav.

NEW ORLEANS -- Nearly 1 million Gulf Coast residents fled the path of Hurricane Gustav this weekend -- a sign that emergency preparations among residents and public officials alike, if not perfectly smooth, are improved since Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and flattened parts of the Mississippi coast three years ago.

As major interstates filled during a bumper-to-bumper exodus Sunday, residents -- some carrying fridges and dryers in pickup trucks -- skedaddled toward Houston, Memphis and Atlanta to escape a storm that the National Hurricane Center called "a big boy."

The precautions are needed, as Gustav is likely to challenge New Orleans' up-armored but unfinished levees. The event is also a test of a complex evacuation plan put into full force Saturday afternoon. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu worried Sunday that as many as 20,000 vulnerable New Orleanians had yet to heed the evacuation orders.

"Are the preparations better today than they were before Katrina? Absolutely, positively," says Brian Wolshon, a Louisiana State University emergency response expert. "They took their lumps with Katrina. The problem is, there's no telling if conditions will be the same (with Gustav)."

After a full-scale revamp of the region's emergency capabilities, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local officials know they cannot permit another embarrassing and deadly fiasco. Staging of buses, boats and generators began early last week throughout the region, and 2,000 National Guard troops were activated.

As Republicans gathered for their national convention in Minnesota, Americans watched government reaction closely, says Susan Cutter, a storm expert at the University of South Carolina. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who was elected in part because citizens perceived him to be a more effective on-the-ground responder than other public officials, including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, moved unprecedented resources into the area. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew at 11:30 p.m. EDT, effective Sunday night. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney decided to forgo the Republican National Convention to be on hand for emergency management.

"Politically, the Republicans can't afford a second hit," says Cutter.

Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and FEMA head David Paulson toured the area late in the week as a show of federal support. Paulson said the preparations indicated "a new philosophy" for the federal government to move aggressively to protect major cities from storms.

The real shift, however, didn't come from FEMA but from the Department of Homeland Security, says Cutter. "They already know how to do this stuff," she says of FEMA. But DHS seemed woefully out of touch after Katrina's storm waters busted through the London, 17th Street, and Industrial canal levees and flooded nearly 80 percent of the Crescent City nearly three years to the day before Gustav's projected landfall.

Gustav was gaining strength Sunday, with tropical force winds extending 200 miles from the eye. But its path is not yet clear; the storm appeared to make a slight jag to the west Sunday morning, amid projections it would make landfall in southwestern Louisiana and then track into Texas as a tropical storm. The greatest threat, authorities say, is the potential for a 20-foot storm surge that could overtop the region's vast fortifications.

"This is desperate," says Jackie Clarkson, New Orleans City Council chairwoman.

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local authorities rushed to shore up levees on the vulnerable West Bank of New Orleans, which largely escaped Katrina's punch, officials made no promises that up-armored levees would hold. Of particular concern is the Harvey Canal in Jefferson Parish, widely seen as a weak point in the system. In fact, only about one-third of the city's $12 billion new levee system has been completed. With storm-surge projections of up to 20 feet and many levees at 8 feet, overtopping seems likely if the storm holds its course.

On Saturday, buses began taking evacuees from 17 points around the city to Union Terminal, where charter buses and trains zipped them out of town. Some 14,000 residents had been moved by the time the bus evacuation ended at noon Sunday. The Superdome, the scene of such misery after Katrina, will be locked and guarded. There will be no "shelter of last resort," authorities say. If there were any doubts about the storm's potential, Nagin extinguished those Saturday night when he used unusually strong language to urge people to leave, calling Gustav "the storm of the century" and "the mother of all storms."

"You need to get your butts out," the famously laid-back mayor told residents Saturday night, taking a much sharper tone than during the pre-Katrina days. "You need to be scared."

New Orleanians took notice. Resident Patrick Green said the city, which has regained nearly 90 percent of its residents since Katrina, had finally begun to feel normal. "I don't know where I'm going, but it doesn't matter: It's time to go," says Green. Looking around at the mostly empty streets, Green says, "I'm leaving a ghost town."

Yet hopes for a 100 percent evacuation dimmed Sunday morning as authorities declared a noon deadline to hop an evacuation bus. What had been a crush of evacuees had slowed through Saturday. "I'm a little troubled," says Landrieu.

The evacuation was not eventless. Traffic on Saturday was backed up more than 20 miles on I-10 into Mobile, Ala. A new ID bracelet system intended to link evacuees together via the Web crashed on Saturday at Union Terminal. Officials said evacuees will instead be logged in at shelters, but those added logistics may become daunting in the next few days because shelters are spread across the Gulf Coast and may not be equipped to log in evacuees. One logistics contractor, David Young, said the city seemed to be scrambling on some fronts to prepare. In Jefferson Parish, some 700 people waited in vain Saturday for buses to pick them up, according to reports.

Garden District resident Alan Drake, a gardener, says he plans to stay, as he did through Katrina. "I'll have a lot of my clients' homes cleaned up by the time they get back," he says.

"We've got quite a few people staying, most of them from Mexico and Puerto Rico," says New Orleans resident Fred Wilson, who stayed through Katrina before being evacuated two weeks later at gunpoint. "I think people are saying they'll survive the best they can. But this is a greater force than Katrina."

After Katrina, the city partnered with emergency experts and charities to figure out how to appeal to the most vulnerable residents, the elderly, to leave during storm emergencies, says John Kiefer, an emergency expert at the University of New Orleans. Yet the city began distributing pamphlets explaining the new procedures only last week.

Kiefer says officials were surprised to learn that the elderly hung on through Katrina because of the uncertainties implicit in an emergency evacuation. To assuage that, officials have been clearer about where evacuees are going and where they'll be staying. Residents who returned, too, "have a different risk perspective," says Cutter of the University of South Carolina. "The people who came back are really committed to the city, and this is all very personal to them now."

Abandoned pets became a huge issue during Katrina, triggering special legislation in Louisiana to avoid the misery of survival for animals in a flooded city. Animal rescue groups scrambled over the weekend to take possession of pets at the New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal, to be returned after the storm. Unlike during Katrina, many residents were allowed to take small, and sometimes larger, animals on the evacuation buses.

"I'm still praying this is just a big drill," says animal rescue worker Brenda Shoss, wearing a duct-tape name tag.

Those who stay will encounter a skeleton crew of law enforcement officers who will treat anybody on the street as a suspicious person, says Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish. The idea is to guarantee that property will be protected against looters -- a main reason so many residents decided to ride out Katrina. "If you stay," Mr. Broussard warns, "this will be no Mayberry."

"We've learned from our mistakes," says New Orleans Police Officer B. Francois. "And this time, if we arrest someone, they're not going to the local jail. They're getting on a bus to Angola," the infamous rural prison farm.

Outside New Orleans, many shrimpers, who lost most of their fleet to Katrina, skippered boats into inland waters. Others secured them as well as they could to the docks in eastern Orleans Parish.

"This is where the fun starts," says fisherman Tony deBram, grimly.

Why a Gulf Wetland May Become a City

Bayou Caddy, Miss. -- If America learned one thing from hurricane Katrina, hydrologists argue, it should be this: Don't fill in tideland marshes and build on them. Such human activity, they insist, diminishes the marshes' ability to absorb some of the wallop of storms as they strike coastal communities.

Here on the westernmost reaches of Mississippi's marshes -- the very place where Katrina rushed ashore on its path to becoming one of the worst natural disasters in US history -- that lesson is being tested, with broad implications for US taxpayers who pay most of the bills for storm repairs.

Bob Metz, a crab dealer who plies the tidelands of Bayou Caddy, has only to look out from his boathouse to see, in the distance, the future: the new Silver Slipper Casino, its bright sign twinkling beneath a dark cumulous cloud stack.

To Mr. Metz, plans to augment the casino with a new condo city built on top of a tidal marsh is the prototype of a boondoggle waiting for a bailout. But local and state governments so far are backing the plan, and the US Army Corps of Engineers is considering a permit application to fill the spongy ground so the development will have firm footing. If approved, the permit would, quite literally, lay the groundwork for a project that could create the fourth-largest city on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"The big guys get what they want; that's the lesson I take from this," says Metz.

Another lesson might be that the dream of living on the ocean's edge dies hard. Some $80 billion in damages from Katrina apparently have not dampened it, nor have scientists' warnings that a $500 billion storm is possible in the US by 2020 and that the sea level may rise as much as three feet in the next century. So long as people gravitate to coastal living, political and economic pressures to allow it will rub up hard against the cautionary notes of scientists and environmentalists.

"The tough part is where the science leaves off and management and policy pick up," says Bryan Harper, senior economist at the Army Corps' Institute for Water Resources in Alexandria, Va. "We collectively use and enjoy the coast, but we have to understand what the balance is between what we get out of it and what is the real cost of occupying those areas. What we don't want is to induce development to areas that are not currently developed in these high-risk areas."

If history is any guide, developers and politicians who envision the revenue benefits of growth usually prevail - sometimes even in areas that most scientists would call "high risk." America's coastal counties have added 7 million people in the past five years, absorbing a little more than half the total US population growth in an area that makes up 17 percent of the US land surface, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Congress has contributed to the trend by assigning much of the risk of coastal living to the US government. The lawmaker-approved National Flood Insurance Program augments private insurance, and the Corps-administered Shore Protection Program in effect subsidizes construction of high-value structures on the beach by guaranteeing that fresh sand will be trucked in whenever storms carve into the headland.

US wetlands policy since 1988 has been to require developers who build on wetlands to mitigate the loss by creating or restoring wetlands elsewhere. But the overall goal of "no net loss" is failing, despite agencies' creation of tens of thousands of wetland acreage each year. The National Wetlands Inventory, by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that nearly 60,000 acres of wetlands are lost annually and that up to 80 percent of developers' mitigation projects fail. In Mississippi alone, the Army Corps is trying to restore some 3,000 acres of wetlands weakened by hurricane Katrina, to restore natural flow patterns and reduce the impact of any future storm surge.

For many, the Bayou Caddy proposal speaks to the power of market forces to erode a region's resolve to bolster its hurricane defenses - even with Katrina fresh in memory. The $750 million project, known as The Breezes of Paradise Bay, would eventually include as many as four high-rises studded with shops, arcades, restaurants, and residences. There would be room for perhaps 10,000 people in this "condo city" on the bayou - more than in the nearby towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis combined.

Development of the scrubby marsh, now dotted with a few crab shacks and shrimp-boat docks, could be an economic boon to an area whose economy was shattered by Katrina, which is why the plan has broad political support. The developers said in a 2006 letter to the county that the project could add as much as $7.5 million annually to tax rolls.

What's more, proponents argue, condos built of concrete and steel would be better able to withstand a hurricane and could even serve as a man-made wind barrier that might protect properties further inland.

Rising land costs and the durability of high-rise towers are why resistance is diminishing to the idea of building condos on the coast, says developer Barney Creel of Gulfport. "What's the alternative?" asks Mr. Creel. "There's not a good alternative. I can understand how people don't want to see the small-town feeling go away, but it's just no longer financially feasible for that [residential] type of development down here. I think the realization of the feasibility of condos is sinking in."

The debate over Bayou Caddy cuts to the core of America's fixation with coastal living, says Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University professor and author of "The Corps and the Shore." At issue, he says, is whether the US should reduce the scale of the human profile on the coast, allowing smaller structures further inland, and off the marshes, instead of allowing large-scale construction directly on beach fronts.

"This is no time, in the context of rising sea levels and the expected increase in the rate of hurricanes, to be allowing condo development right on the shore," says Dr. Pilkey, a geologist specializing in coastal development.

"This is crazy. It gives the community no chance to move back, to let the big buildings go and let little buildings go in."

If the Corps grants the fill permit for the Bayou Caddy project, critics fear it will open the floodgates for other development on marshes. Some hydraulics engineers say the marshes helped to slow Katrina's ravaging path across Mississippi. Trucking in clay dirt to fill a marsh to build such structures is like encasing a sponge in plastic wrap, they argue. Skipping over soft ground made hard, any future flood surge would travel further onto land, exacerbating property damage deeper inland.

"If we don't nip this [project] in the bud, the pressure will be to develop more and more, and the Corps is critical to stopping that," says Bob Davis, a former Corps engineer and an agency critic.

Not all scientists agree that Mississippi's low-lying marshlands would do much to absorb the smack of a big storm.

"It's a concept that's stuck with the public, but the absorbency of the ground, when you look at the physics of how a storm surge works, has very little effect as what you might call a sponge," says Robert Twilley, director of the oceanography department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. That doesn't mean the condo idea is a good one, he adds. The practice of filling some wetlands and creating others as "mitigation" nibbles away at the coast and undermines what Dr. Twilley calls "landscape integrity."

"The Army Corps still has not come to grips with that issue," he says.

The Corps, for its part, is going to make someone unhappy when it decides what to do about the Bayou Caddy fill permit. The stakeholders are many - politicians, state marine resources divisions, environmentalists, and landowners - and their interests are not always apparent.

With national coastal policy in flux, interest groups on both sides tend to hype their positions and stretch the facts, Twilley says.

"The public-policy sector has to be open-minded about the biases of their value system, which is the dollar, and [ask whether] the dollar really provides the best accurate condition of value when it comes to natural resources," he says. "What happens is you get forced into hyping functions of [economic development and natural resources] to build a level playing field, and that's a shame."

Meanwhile, the Army Corps, a military engineering agency best able to provide hard data on issues from natural surge protection to hydraulics research, is struggling to shift focus from building structural engineering projects to spearheading the debate over coastal policy. At the very least, the Corps needs to do a better job of informing the debate than it currently does, says one Corps spokesman. That aim is a major tenet of the agency's new internal "Actions for Change" program, which calls for the Corps to take a bigger role in setting coastal policy.

"The purpose of the risk-informed approach and risk communication is to make sure that for decisions made in these areas, even those not made by the Corps, people have information to see how those decisions might affect flood risk," says Mr. Harper, the Corps economist.

For the Breezes of Paradise Bay project, the winds may be shifting. Despite early support for the project, the Hancock County planning board recently clarified that structures higher than 12 stories will not be allowed at Bayou Caddy - a rule that may downscale the plan considerably.

The Corps, moreover, is taking a careful look at the permit application, with one spokesman saying there's no guarantee the project will get off the ground. A decision is expected in the next few months.

"If it's really high-quality wetlands, I don't know that you would or would not get the permit," says Pat Robbins, a Corps spokesman in Mobile, Ala. Bayou Caddy, he adds, "is probably pretty high-quality wetlands."

Putting Jazz Back in New Orleans

Peter "Chuck" Badie Jr. couldn't rescue much from his Ninth Ward home besides his beloved bass and a statue of St. Jude -- "the patron saint of impossible causes."

Like so much else that he gazed upon after hurricane Katrina, "I knew that house was gone," says the octogenarian jazz musician who has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis.

But now Mr. Badie and St. Jude have a new home, painted the same -- white with green trim -- as the old one. It's one of 70 new houses in what's called Musicians' Village. It's in the devastated Upper Ninth Ward, and it's one of the most unusual, quixotic, and totally appropriate ideas to rise from the city where jazz was born: A neighborhood by musicians, for musicians.

Laid out in tight rows, the homes -- a mix of bungalow and shotgun styles -- shimmer in Caribbean colors: sun-soaked yellows, sunset pinks, deep-sea turquoise. In a city where thousands of homes are rotting on their pilings, Musicians' Village is an island of hope in a tragic sea.

Indeed, the village, dreamed up by music philanthropists Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis and made possible by Habitat for Humanity, is both a joyful vision and an ironic critique: So far, a nonprofit project aimed at bringing musicians -- and thereby music -- back to the city has become the largest redevelopment project to date, with another 150 homes planned in the surrounding neighborhood.

Edward Blakely, the city's recently hired recovery director, calls it a symbol of New Orleans' roots, but also of the fractured politics and stalled redevelopment funds that have left one of the South's largest cities unable to muster the political will and financial capital to rebuild.

Bassist Badie, who is known in the jazz world for his "romping" style, was one of the first to be approved. He put in the 350 required hours of sweat equity, pouring concrete and banging nails. The houses cost $70,000 and are built a foot above the Katrina crest. The monthly mortgage is about $550. Other musical residents include singer-harmonica player J.D. Hill, Latin bandleader Fredy Omar, and singer Margaret Perez.

But controversy and tragedy have also dogged the project. One of the musicians working to get a house in Musicians' Village was Dinneral Shavers, whose murder in late December helped spark a citywide crackdown on crime. Like most of his bandmates, he had been turned down for a house in the village.

Indeed, getting approved for a mortgage has been hard for many trombonists and drummers, even as, for nondiscrimination reasons, Habitat For Humanity has opened the project up to nonmusicians, as well. About 50 percent of the original applicants were denied outright because of bad credit or bankruptcies.

Out of a total of 48 approved applicants, 30 are musicians, with another 117 still working their way through the process. To help musicians account for their freelance income, activists have used everything from gig notes to newspaper advertisements to prove employment.

"I'm praying for all these fellows to get in, because they're trying," says Badie.

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