Several Gulf Coast states are preparing for mandatory evacuations this weekend in anticipation of the arrival Tuesday morning of Hurricane Gustav, a powerful storm that has already killed 70 people in the Caribbean.
Louisiana began evacuating patients Friday from hospitals and nursing homes and has asked tourists to leave the state. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will call for a mandatory evacuation to be begin Saturday night.
Alabama, Mississippi and Texas officials will also call for a voluntary evacuation Saturday and mandatory evacuations for coastal residents Sunday.
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All states hope to have evacuations completed by Sunday night, and several states, including New Mexico, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas, have volunteered to host evacuees in state-supported shelters.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said there are 65,000 guardsmen on standby across the region.
“Any response required will be rapid and effective,” Gen. Blum said during a press conference at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami Friday afternoon upgraded Tropical Storm Gustav to a Category One hurricane as it approached Cuba.
The eye of the storm is headed for the central Louisiana coast, about 50 miles west of New Orleans, and forecasters say the storm will build in strength and they expect it to hit landfall as a Category Three hurricane.
President Bush signed an emergency declaration for the state of Louisiana Thursday to provide federal support including personnel and equipment.
However, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Mr. Bush for now still plans to give his speech Monday night at the Republican National Convention as planned regardless of the storm.
“We’re taking this storm very seriously. Thankfully, so are the leaders of the states that could be impacted, and they seem to be well prepared,” Mrs. Perino said.
Adm. Harvey Johnson, deputy administrator for FEMA, said that Gustav will create a 15- to 30-foot storm surge on Monday before it strikes land, the largest surge since Hurricane Katrina hit three years ago.
“This storm is very much going in the same direction as Katrina,” Adm. Johnson said. “There are more than 240,000 households on the Louisiana coast that could be affected.”
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America” said, “it’s not just New Orleans that we have to be concerned about. We have to look at all of Louisiana, and we actually have to look at the Gulf from Texas all the way over to the western part of Florida.”
However, he warned that New Orleans remains vulnerable to levee failures.
“They’ve done an awful lot of work to make the levees stronger than they were prior to Katrina. At the same time, any time you have a lot of water and have a lot of wind, the possibility of flooding is very real,” Mr. Chertoff said.