NEW ORLEANS, La. – For the next two days, the city will test new evacuation plans and emergency response strategies meant to prevent the widespread confusion, especially among the poor, that accompanied the approach of Hurricane Katrina last year.
The 2006 hurricane season begins next week. Forecasters say the season, which runs through November, could bring nine hurricanes that threaten populated areas, five of them intense.
As part of the tests, about 80 volunteers will board New Orleans buses on Tuesday and head to the city's convention center and train station as a mock Category 3 hurricane bears down on the state's Gulf Coast. The make-believe evacuees will then be tagged with wristbands for tracking.
In a real hurricane, the evacuees would be taken from New Orleans by bus or train to shelters first within the state and then elsewhere, depending on availability.
Mayor Ray Nagin's new evacuation plan was 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.
"This is our first chance to walk through our plan," said Jerry Sneed, an official with the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security. "We've got some technology we're trying to use so we know who we're putting on the buses and where they're going."
City and state officials are still counting on most people to evacuate on their own. Last year, about a million people drove out of the New Orleans area before Katrina hit.
Nagin's plan for those without a way out calls for the use of airlines and trains to aid with the outbound flow, though details were still being worked out. Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco will participate in the drills as will members of the National Guard.
Tuesday's exercise will involve mock evacuations of New Orleans and the state's largest trailer park for Katrina and Rita evacuees in Baker, La., a Baton Rouge suburb. About 1,500 displaced people live there.
Only volunteers will participate in the small-scale, mock evacuations in New Orleans and Baker.
On Wednesday, the drill is designed to test responders with mock reports of power outages, downed phone lines and fallen trees or other structures.
Given the ominous forecast for the 2006 hurricane season, both Blanco and Nagin have warned residents to expect to evacuate more frequently than in previous years. Nagin plans to order evacuations for hurricanes as weak as Category 2, or those with sustained winds of 96 mph or higher.
Katrina was a Category 3 storm. A Category 5 is the most severe, with sustained winds of more than 155 mph. Winds that powerful can blow away entire buildings and create tidal surges of more than 18 feet.