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New Orleans again vulnerable as new hurricane season opens

In order to avoid the chaos that followed Katrina, National Guard troops will be ordered into the city as soon as a storm is forecast to hit. Those who cannot evacuate on their own will be transported out of the city on buses and trains. Photo courtesy AFP
by Staff Writers
New Orleans, Louisiana (AFP) May 28, 2006
With a new storm season looming ominously, New Orleans remains vulnerable eight months after Hurricane Katrina wrecked thousands of homes and left much of the city under water.

Levee systems that gave way under the pressure of Katrina and Hurricane Rita shortly afterwards still haven't been repaired, and while officials say stopgap measures will be sufficient to prevent another massive flood, many residents are fearful that the homes they have barely finished repairing could be wrecked again.

Hurricane Katrina left more than 1,300 people dead last year after slamming the US Gulf coast, and entire neighborhoods in New Orleans remain abandoned because tens of thousands of those who lost everything to the stagnant floodwaters last September have not come back.

Luke and Jane Marengo are getting their house ready to move back in sometime in early June and finally rid themselves of the cramped, government-funded trailer they have lived in since November.

"We're picking out furniture," Luke Marengo said.

But despite his outward show of optimism, Marengo is trusting to fate, rather than the government, to protect the city from another storm.

"You've got to trust your government, but I have very little confidence in them after (Katrina)," he said.

With the new hurricane season opening on June 1, experts predicted last week that as many as 16 named tropical storms could form this year, possibly six of them rising to Category 3 hurricane strength or higher.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the dikes intended to protect low-lying New Orleans from floods, has failed to meet its self-imposed June 1 deadline to bring the levee system back up to pre-Katrina levels.

The corps is now saying that the work will be done by the end of June. They plan to use massive sheets of metal to block off the city's canals if a storm approaches, to keep rising water from the adjacent lake from flowing in.

This approach limited -- but did not eliminate -- flood damage during Rita, which came just days after the last of Katrina's floodwaters were pumped out of New Orleans.

But many residents say that restoring the levees to pre-Katrina levels is not sufficient. A major campaign is under way to gain protection from the worst Category 5 storms.

"We need Category 5 levee protection because that is the minimum protection necessary to protect New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana," community activist Sandra Rosenthal told AFP.

Congress authorized the Corps to protect the city from the most severe storm characteristic of the region in 1965, Rosenthal said. The Corps determined that would be a category 3 storm and never adjusted their plans after the National Weather Service informed the Corps that new data showed this standard was insufficient in 1972.

Even if the city manages to escape flood damage this season, a tropical storm would be enough to destroy the temporary homes of more than 50,000 people still living in trailers, which are built to withstand winds only up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour.

Many other buildings are also unsafe.

The government has decided to order mandatory evacuations in the most storm-damaged areas as soon as winds are forecast to hit 74 miles (119 kilometers) an hour, which is a category 1 hurricane.

In more stable areas evacuation will become mandatory with a category 2 storm where winds are upward of 96 miles (155 kilometers) per hour.

In order to avoid the chaos that followed Katrina, National Guard troops will be ordered into the city as soon as a storm is forecast to hit. Those who cannot evacuate on their own will be transported out of the city on buses and trains.

The Superdome and Convention Center -- the refugee sites of such abject misery last summer -- will be used as staging areas for the evacuation.

Bar-coded wrist bands will be used to keep track evacuees so it will not take months for separated family members to find each other, as it did last year.

Many stayed behind during hurricane Katrina and the chaos which followed because they did not want to abandon their pets. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will be working to ensure that pets are safely evacuated this season.

While police cannot force anyone out of their homes, people who violate city curfews during a mandatory evacuation will be arrested.

Since less than half of the city's 450,000 residents have returned, it also ought to be easier to organize a smooth evacuation.

"I think we're pretty prepared," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said.

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