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New Orleans disaster plan: Get out of town

Hurricane strategy stresses evacuation, not shelters
People board buses near the Superdome to evacuate New Orleans on September 1, 2005.



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New Orleans (Louisiana)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- New Orleans officials detailed a new disaster-preparedness plan on Tuesday that depends more on evacuation by bus and train and won't use the Superdome and Convention Center as shelters.

Mayor Ray Nagin and New Orleans Homeland Security Director Col. Terry Ebbert said the plan will prevent a repeat of the major disaster that happened when Katrina slammed the city last year.

"We think that we have come a long way," Ebbert said.

Ebbert and Nagin outlined a strategy built on lessons learned from Katrina, which killed at least 1,295 people in Louisiana and stranded thousands in New Orleans for days without help.

"Read my lips: This is a plan for getting people out of the city. There is no shelter of last resort," Nagin said. (Watch how those who stay behind will face arrest -- 1:29)

An evacuation would be ordered at least 30 hours before landfall of any hurricane of Category 2 strength or higher, with a curfew imposed after the evacuation, Nagin said.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall last August as a Category 3 storm with top winds of about 125 mph.

The Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1 and continues through the end of November.

Nagin said no one would be forced to leave their home, but "if you come outside and violate the curfew, you will be arrested."

When 30,000 people crowded into the Superdome to ride out Katrina, they were left without adequate food or sanitation. No such city shelters would be opened for the next Category 2 storm, Nagin said.

The city's population sharply declined after Katrina -- from about 484,000 to some 200,000 -- making a potential evacuation this summer easier. A higher percentage of the current residents also would have their own transportation out of the city than before Katrina, Nagin said.

People would be encouraged to take responsibility for their own evacuation plan, with only about 10,000 residents expected to need help from the city, Nagin said.

Amtrak trains, public transit and school buses would be used to evacuate people who can't drive themselves out of the city, he said.

To encourage pet owners to leave, Nagin said caged animals would be allowed on evacuation buses. A smaller pet could ride in an evacuee's lap but "if it's a rottweiler, then it may be put in the bottom of the bus," he said.

Some residents said they chose not to evacuate before Katrina hit because they did not want to leave their pets behind.

Nagin said the levees that failed during Katrina, causing much of his city to flood, "will be very, very secure."

The rebuilding work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is 80 percent complete, he said, and the levees will be made of stronger materials.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Nagin said when asked if the city would flood again.

The police response will also be better planned, he said, with law enforcement agencies having several backup communications systems and better coordination among agencies.

After Katrina hit, authorities said that an inability to communicate effectively hampered emergency crews.

Police Superintendent Warren Riley said "an overwhelming number of soldiers and police officers" will be in New Orleans to prevent the looting of property left behind in the evacuation.

"Citizens will have no doubt their property will be protected," he said.

During storms, police would "hunker down" in safe places around the city, he said.

Ebbert said the New Orleans Airport would operate as long as possible, with additional flights chartered to help an expected 20,000 tourists leave.

With Katrina, many people who held tickets to fly out ahead of the storm were stranded at the airport when flights were canceled.

While the mandatory evacuation is expected only with storms rated Category 2 or worse, even a tropical storm would force people living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to leave their homes, Nagin said. In that case, there would be shelters opened in the city, he said.

The city will test its plan with drills May 23-24, he said. Public service announcements on local stations will get the word out to residents. (Watch why FEMA is on a hiring binge -- 2:12)

Nagin said much better coordination is in place with federal and state agencies.

"I have a pretty strong comfort level that everyone will be able to deliver" on their roles, he said.

Concerns remain, however, about the agencies in charge of responding to disasters. A bipartisan Senate committee that studied the response to Katrina last week recommended that FEMA should be abolished and replaced with a new organization. (Full story)

Nagin may not be around to implement the New Orleans plan. He is in a tough re-election fight with Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. The run-off vote is May 20.

"Somebody new who comes in, they would have to be Einstein to figure this thing out," Nagin said.

Florida concerns

In Florida, meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush met with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to discuss preparations for the coming hurricane season.

The two discussed updated evacuation and relief plans and provisions for temporary housing in case of what Chertoff called a "significant displacement" this year.

Bush said he also raised concerns with the Army Corps of Engineers about the 140-mile protective dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee, about 120 miles northwest of Miami.

The Corps is working to strengthen the levee, but Bush said a recent state report concluded there was a 1-in-6 chance of a "major breach" if a hurricane hits the area.

If the levee failed, the lake could flood agricultural areas in the upper Everglades, but flooding would be unlikely to spread as far south as densely populated areas around Miami and Fort Lauderdale, he said.

While authorities at all levels of government are working to improve their response to hurricanes in advance of this season, Chertoff emphasized that "individual preparedness" is still important.

"That means recognizing that it may be 24, 48 or 72 hours before we come with food and water and other supplies, and so people have to be prepared to sustain themselves for that period of time," he said.

"That means people have to listen to instructions to evacuate. This is not the time to play the game of deniability or 'I'm going to ride this one out.' If local officials say, you've got to go."

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