BATON ROUGE, Louisiana, August 28, 2008 (ENS) - Nearly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina forced the evacuation of thousands of people from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, residents and emergency managers in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are preparing again to cope with another major storm heading across the Caribbean in their direction.
Late this afternoon local time, the center of Tropical Storm Gustav was located about 15 miles west of Kingston, Jamaica, moving west at about seven miles per hour. The storm made landfall on the eastern tip of Jamaica earlier today and Kingston was swept by winds of 50 mph with higher gusts.
The center of Gustav is expected to cross Jamaica tonight and turn to the west-northwest, moving near or over the Cayman Islands on Friday. Gustav is forecast to rapidly strengthen in the northwestern Caribbean Sea on Friday and Saturday before entering the Gulf of Mexico as a major hurricane.
National Hurricane Center forecasters say Gustav is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of six to 12 inches over Hispaniola, eastern Cuba, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Isolated maximum rainfalls of up to 25 inches are possible with life-threatening flash floods and mud slides, warned the NHC. Coastal storm surge flooding of one to three feet above normal tide levels with large and dangerous battering waves can be expected in areas of onshore winds.
Gustav is forecast to increase in size once it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, and these expanding wind fields will produce sea swells that will hit Florida’s Gulf of Mexico beaches by early Sunday. Onshore winds along Florida’s Atlantic beaches are forecast to strengthen this weekend, which will create a moderate to high risk for rip currents.
The National Weather Service predicts that Gustav will strike the Florida Panhandle and the eastern coastal parishes of Louisiana at hurricane force.
Federal and state agencies are better prepared to handle the effects of a hurricane today than they were when Katrina struck on August 29, 2005.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued a state disaster proclamation on Wednesday, and today he requested a pre-landfall disaster declaration from President George W. Bush.
In his letter to the president, Governor Jindal wrote, "I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments, and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary to save lives and to protect property, public health and safety."
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has activated its Emergency Operations Center, and FEMA has brought its National Response Coordination Center and its Regional Response Coordination Centers to heightened states of readiness.
Evacuations will begin 72 hours before to the arrival of tropical storm force winds, FEMA officials and the governor said.
The federal Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, is working with states, airports, airlines and bus companies to insure any needed evacuations are executed without delay.
The Louisiana National Guard has activated 3,000 troops to perform missions, including the transportation, security, assistance with contra-flow traffic and search and rescue.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development activated their contract today for 700 buses, which began to arrive this morning in preparation for the evacuation.
While Governor Jindal is still serving his first year in office, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is a veteran of the disastrous 2005 hurricane season that brought Katrina on August 29 and Rita a month later. The city is still mired in a slow recovery process.
Nagin, who was a key speaker this morning for the Oregon, Washington and Minnesota delegations at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, is returning to New Orleans immediately to monitor Gustav.
"While it is too early to tell exactly where Gustav will hit and how strong it will be, I'm deeply concerned about the emotional and psychological effect on our citizens," said Nagin.
New Orleans has made preparations to execute its city evacuation plan, which includes an additional 130 buses.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections will begin relocating prisoners from at risk areas on Friday. The state Department of Agriculture and Forestry is prepared to activate pet shelters and has made arrangements for pet evacuation by truck from New Orleans.
The Department of Homeland Security is advising all Gulf Coast residents to have a three-day supply of water for each person in the family, including pets, along with non-perishable food, a battery-powered radio, extra batteries and a flashlight, needed medications and important documents like property insurance.
"Regardless of its predicted path, it is important for citizens in the Gulf Coast region to listen to what their local officials are advising over the course of the next few days and to take these simple steps to prepare," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "If residents make individual and family preparations, they make it easier for first responders to focus on people who can’t help themselves and need help first."
FEMA's pre-positioned supplies available for distribution in Gulf Coast states include more than 2.4 million liters of water and more than four million meals.
The agency has prepositioned 478 emergency generators, 140 truckloads of tarps and 267 truckloads of blankets and cots.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services has placed nine disaster medical assistance teams, 11 health strike teams and two incident command teams on alert. Nine federal medical stations, each with a 250-bed capacity, are on alert.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has teams on alert to handle planning, power, roofing, and debris removal, and a water and ice team is ready to provide these necessities as they are needed.
In Austin, Texas, Governor Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration late Tuesday in response to the threat posed by Tropical Storm Gustav to 61 Texas counties.
The governor has called on state resources to prepare for Gustav, which is expected to strengthen as it enters the Gulf of Mexico over the Labor Day weekend. He said all state resources are ready for rapid deployment as necessary, and volunteer organizations are prepared to provide mass care support for residents.
The American Red Cross is moving hundreds of mobile feeding trucks into Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The organization is moving thousands of cots and blankets, tens of thousands of comfort kits and ready-to-eat meals into the coastal states today and Friday. Operational headquarters are being established in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Hattiesburg, and Montgomery.
Federal and state officials are also beginning to coordinate with Southeastern states that could be impacted by Tropical Storm Hanna, which is currently developing off the Atlantic coast.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.