Evacuees flock to city

Published 1:45 pm Monday, September 1, 2008

Nearly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, her distant cousin, Hurricane Gustav steam rolled on a similar path.

A weakened Hurricane Gustav slammed into the heart of Louisiana’s fishing and oil industry Monday, avoiding a direct hit on flood-prone New Orleans and boosting hope that the city would avoid catastrophic flooding.

Sunday, a mandatory evacuation was ordered for parts of the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coast, with many of those residents seeking refuge in Demopolis.

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“It’s just something you have to get used to,” Marie Clyde, a resident of Slidell, La. who found temporary lodging at the Demopolis Days Inn, said. “I live on the east side of New Orleans and Gustav was supposed to hit on the west…but I learned three years ago, when they say leave, you need to go.”

Clyde said her neighborhood was nearly obliterated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, but she managed to escape before the storm.

“We have relatives in Memphis so we spent the better part of a month up there,” she said. “This time we just wanted to get far enough away to be safe but we’re going back home (Tuesday).”

Residents from both the Alabama and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have come north in droves, looking for a dry and safe place to ride out what was supposed to be the most devastative storm since Hurricane Rita.

“It’s part of life on the Gulf Coast,” said Kenosha Harris, a Bayou La Batre resident who was evacuated Sunday. “We came north, mostly on 43. The first vacancy we found was in Demopolis. This is where God wanted us to be.”

Harris said she was heading back home to Mobile County Monday evening as Gustav took a hard western turn to make landfall near Franklin, La.

“Katrina was a lesson we all learned the hard way,” she recalled. “When you live that close to the water, you don’t mess around with (a hurricane).”

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav hit around 10:30 a.m. EDT Monday near the Cocodrie, a low-lying community in Louisiana’s Cajun country about 72 miles southwest of New Orleans. Forecasters once feared a storm that chased nearly 2 million from the coast would arrive as a devastating Category 4 with much more powerful winds.

While New Orleans avoided a direct hit, the storm could be devastating where it did strike. For most of the past half century, the bayou communities that thrived in the Barataria basin have watched their land literally disappear. A combination of factors — oil drilling, hurricanes, river levees, damming of rivers — have destroyed marshes and swamps that once flourished in this river delta.

Entire towns in the basin of the Mississippi delta have disappeared because of land loss. The rates of loss are among the highest in the world; erosion has left it with virtually no natural buffer.

“What Katrina didn’t destroy in ‘05, it looks like Gustav could destroy in ‘08,” said Ivor van Heerden, a hurricane expert with Louisiana State University.

For all their seeming similarities, Hurricanes Gustav and Katrina were different in one critical respect: Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast with an epic storm surge that topped 27 feet, a far higher wall of water than Gustav hauled ashore.

“We don’t expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson told The Associated Press. “But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged severely.”

Katrina was a bigger storm when it made landfall in August 2005, and it made a direct hit on the Mississippi coast. Gustav skirted along Louisiana’s shoreline at “a more gentle angle,” said National Weather Service storm surge specialist Will Shaffer.

Gustav was the seventh named storm in the Atlantic hurricane season. The eighth, Tropical Storm Hanna, was strengthening about 40 miles north of the Bahamas. Though a storm’s track and intensity are difficult to predict days in advance, long-term projections showed the storm could come ashore along the border of Georgia and South Carolina late in the week. The National Hurricane Center also was watching another tropical depression that formed Monday in the open Atlantic.