(AP) – Sept. 1, 2008 -- Cartons of food, water, blankets and other supplies to sustain 1 million people for three days were ready to be distributed Monday as FEMA anxiously eyed Louisiana levees to gauge how much damage Hurricane Gustav would wreak.
Flood barriers in and around New Orleans, which was
devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, were expected to hold this time,
Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson said. But
the storm's surge could overflow levees and at least partially flood the city,
Damage from Gustav "will be a catastrophe by the time
you add it all up," Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press
a few hours before landfall, but not as bad as Katrina.
"We're expecting levees to hold. We're expecting that
that people are much, much more prepared," he said. "We don't expect
the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina. But we are expecting a lot
of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged
Gustav was downgraded to a Category 2 storm by mid-Monday
morning. Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it hit the Gulf Coast three years
ago, obliterating 90,000 square miles and costing billions of dollars in
Although all the levees have been strengthened since
Katrina, the Corps of Engineers has not completed its plans to prevent or ease
flooding in New Orleans, Johnson said.
"There's no doubt there'll be water that'll accumulate
inside New Orleans," he said. "But we just have to watch that, and
understand it and not overreact, and gauge how well those levees are
An estimated 2 million people have been evacuated from
Louisiana, but as many as 10,000 remain in the New Orleans area, Johnson said.
He said that evacuees who don't have relatives to stay with are in shelters,
including some being housed in junior college dormitories away from the
anticipated disaster area.
The government's sluggish and bumbling response to Katrina
shocked the world and turned FEMA into a national laughingstock. Follow-up
investigations by Congress and the White House concluded that officials at the
local, state and federal levels lacked a sense of urgency in preparing for
The Army Corps of Engineers identified four Gulf Coast areas
as particularly vulnerable to large storm surges according to internal
administration briefing documents obtained by The Associated Press: Inner
Harbor Navigational Canal at Seabrook, Gulf Intercoastal Waterway/Mississippi
River Gulf Outlet, Saint Bernard and Harvey Canal.
Johnson said FEMA has spent the last two years getting ready
for the next big hurricane - which turned out to be Gustav. Response officials
in Washington and along the Gulf Coast began gearing up last week, "almost
as Gustav was born, and people saw the potential size of that storm,"
Over the past five days, he said, responders have been in a
"H-minus-120 timeline," double-checking to make sure all supplies,
search-and-rescue teams, medical equipment, transportation systems and shelters
were ready to move 120 hours before the storm.
Aside from coordinating evacuation traffic, the government
also spirited 3,000 residents from New Orleans by train and 5,000 by airplane,
"They all were leaving in a fairly well organized,
almost managed chaos, which we've never been able to do before," he said.
"The last two (years) were such a light season, it really turned out to be
a good chance to build and to train."
"All of us will watch very intently over the next
eight-to-10 hours and get a good assessment of what is the damage,"
Johnson said. "We all recall the visual images of the Coast Guard picking
up people off rooftops in Katrina. I don't think we'll see as much of that this
year because so many people evacuated very wisely."