NEW ORLEANS – The solemn ceremonies for the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Friday for the most part were blown away by Tropical Storm Gustav, which threatens to become a hurricane and poses the biggest threat to New Orleans since the killer 2005 storm.
An early morning symbolic burial service in honor of the unclaimed bodies left behind by Katrina, and a bell ringing service scheduled for 9:38 a.m. CDT — when the first levee broke inundating the city — were the only events that remained on what would have been a day of remembrance of the devastating storm.
Instead, preparations were under way in the event Gustav strikes early next week.
The National Guard was scheduled to begin convoying supplies and troops into New Orleans on Friday, while some nursing homes and hospitals planned to start moving patients further inland and the state began moving 9,000 inmates from coastal lockups.
An evacuation order for New Orleans was likely, Mayor Ray Nagin said, but not before Saturday Meanwhile, residents of areas further south could be told to leave starting Friday, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
Federal, state and local officials expressed confidence that plans put in place since Katrina would protect residents.
"Ladies and gentlemen, in my estimation, I think we're ready for this threat," Nagin told a news conference Thursday.
The state activated 3,000 Guardsmen on Wednesday, another 2,000 on Thursday, Jindal said. Jindal said he has ordered 1,500 of them to be in New Orleans Friday.
The new troops would beef up the 360 Guardsmen who have been in the city since Katrina helping to police the city.
And as far away as New York City, ambulance companies were preparing to send trucks and crews down to the Gulf Coast. Citywide Mobile Response Corp. spokesman Isaac Newman said his company was dispatching five ambulances along with 15 crew members early Friday from its headquarters in the Bronx.
Projections showed Gustav arriving early next week as a Category 3 storm, with winds of 111 mph greater, anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to eastern Texas. But forecasts are extremely tentative several days out, and the storm could change course and strength.
Mississippi and Louisiana also were beginning preparations to switch interstate lanes so that all traffic would flow north, in the direction an evacuation would follow.
Nagin said people still living in the small trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina should take immediate steps to plan evacuations.
If an evacuation is ordered, the city will also put a curfew in place, Nagin said. Anyone who ignores the evacuation order and is on the streets after curfew will be arrested, he said.
The city said it is prepared to move 30,000 residents in an evacuation; estimates put the city's current population between 310,000 to 340,000 people. There were about 454,000 here before Katrina hit. Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome, in fact, no shelter at all was planned for the city.
The city planned to use buses to pick up people unable to leave on their own and ferry them to a staging area where they would be moved to shelters in northern Louisiana.
The first 150 of 700 buses to move residents inland arrived at a staging area near New Orleans on Thursday, and officials in Mississippi were trying to decide when to move Katrina-battered residents along the coast who were still living in temporary homes.
The planning for a potential evacuation is part of a massive outline drafted after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore three years ago, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and stranding thousands who could not get out in time. Officials expressed confidence those blueprints made them ready for Gustav.
"What you're going to see is the product of three years of planning, training and exercising at all levels of government, starting with the local and the state level and leading up to the federal level," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told ABC television's "Good Morning America" Friday from New Orleans. "So we're clearly better prepared."
During Hurricane Katrina, Jindal said more than 1 million people were evacuated. But, he said, if the state needs to evacuate residents in both southwest and southeast Louisiana the number could be twice that.
Jindal stressed that is just an estimate because a lot depends on the storm's track and intensity and officials hoped to know more early Friday.
Governors in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas pre-declared states of emergency in an attempt to build a foundation for federal assistance. Federal officials said resources and personnel to provide post-storm aid were pouring into the Gulf Coast states from other parts of the country Thursday.
Batteries, bottled water, and other storm supplies were selling briskly, and people were filling up at gas stations, worried of spikes in prices and a lack of supply later in the weekend.
But in Alabama, some tourists and residents were taking a wait-and-see attitude, more focused on the Labor Day holiday weekend ahead.
"We plan to sit in a bar and watch the whole thing," joked Greg Lee, a tourist from Clarksville, Tennessee, who was planning to stay with his family at their beach house at Fort Morgan, near Gulf Shores.