'Hurricane Alicia' Strikes Louisiana in Evacuation Drill

In a dress rehearsal for the coming hurricane season, Mayor Ray Nagin summoned reporters to City Hall while state and federal authorities in Baton Rouge, La., tracked the path of an erratic "Hurricane Alicia" that aimed first for Texas, then jogged toward New Orleans.

It was the beginning of two days worth of mock evacuations and drills aimed at avoiding the chaos that followed last year's deadly Hurricane Katrina. And even before it began there were signs that one often difficult task — convincing people to leave — would be easier in the coming months.

Freddie Taylor, for instance, has stared down countless hurricanes in the last 50 years, leaving for some, riding out others.

But from now on, when the real thing approaches, she won't waver.

"I'm getting out," Taylor, 65, said earlier this week as she stood outside a federally issued trailer next to her flooded New Orleans home. "If they say one's coming, I'm leaving."

That's exactly what city and state officials are banking on. For weeks, authorities have been telling residents to prepare to leave, possibly several times, during what's expected to be an active hurricane season.

The drills that began Tuesday in New Orleans and Baton Rouge will allow first responders and others, including Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, to react as though a Category 3 hurricane was hitting the state's Gulf Coast.

"I want you to know Louisiana is prepared for the next storm. There is no work more important to the state than protecting our citizens during hurricane season," Blanco told reporters at the state Office of Emergency Preparedness headquarters in Baton Rouge.

There, officials tracked "Alicia," a phony storm with a backstory that had it forming a week earlier as a tropical depression 230 miles south of Jamaica and moving through the Yucatan channel. Tuesday's scenario pegged it as a Category 3 storm, 42 hours away from the city after changing from a path that took it toward Texas to one that targeted southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federal Department of Homeland Security will have representatives in New Orleans and Baton Rouge both days.

In New Orleans, volunteers playing the part of evacuees boarded city buses and headed to the city's convention center. The convention center, which served as a makeshift emergency shelter after Katrina, will be a processing point, along with the New Orleans train station, where evacuees will be tagged with wristbands for tracking. In a real hurricane, they would then be taken to shelters, first within the state and then elsewhere depending upon occupancy.

"The more we practice the better we'll be when a storm hits," Marine Cpl. Jose Resendiz, 30, said as he and about a dozen other make-believe evacuees boarded a bus in New Orleans' Algiers neighborhood. Military personnel and state and federal employees were among those posing as evacuees.

That aspect of the drill is part of Nagin's new city-assisted evacuation plan unveiled earlier this month. Last year, as Hurricane Katrina approached, thousands of the city's poor were left behind because they had no transportation, couldn't afford to leave or didn't know where to go.

About 1 million people drove out of the New Orleans area, but more than 1,000 were killed in Louisiana when flood walls failed and tens of thousands of residents were trapped in attics and stranded on rooftops.

Jerry Sneed of the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security said the city will test new technology that allows it to know who's leaving on buses and trains and where they're going.

Officials are especially concerned about the state's more than 200,000 residents living in travel trailers and countless others in unfinished homes. Part of Tuesday's drill includes a mock evacuation of the state's largest trailer site in Baker, La., a Baton Rouge suburb. The site has more than 500 trailers housing about 1,500 people.

"These travel trailers will not hold up in strong winds," said Mark Smith, spokesman for the state's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Officials are urging residents to make their own arrangements for a place to stay because shelter capacity, even though increased since last year, will not be enough to hold all residents.

"Public shelters should be used as a last resort," said Ann Williamson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Social Services.

In-state shelters are prepared to take in about 55,000 people — 22 percent more than they had room for last year, officials said. Still, that space would fill quickly in a mass evacuation.

Parishes in central and northern Louisiana say they're better prepared to help because of lessons learned from Katrina. Many already are making sure they have supplies like cots, blankets, food and water.

Already, the state has issued hurricane evacuation guides, complete with maps, travel-trailer safety tips and guidance for preparing disaster kits containing canned food, batteries, toilet paper, insurance policies and wills.

Scientists predict the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1 and runs through November, could produce 16 named storms, including six major hurricanes.

Evacuations in New Orleans should be easier, in part because far fewer residents are living in the city, and most have cars. Less than half of the 455,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned.

To quell fears of looting, National Guard troops may be stationed with police throughout the city before storms, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew would be in place once an evacuation is ordered, New Orleans police said.

Evacuees also will be allowed to take pets on buses this summer, removing an obstacle for some during Katrina who were unwilling to leave the city without their dogs or cats.