Source: Star Telegram
NEW ORLEANS -- Darryl Griffith thought he could go home again. He brought his family back to New Orleans after living in Houston for two-and-a-half years and rented a yellow duplex in the Lower 9th Ward, the neighborhood that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Now, on a quiet Sunday morning — the calm before the storm — Griffith was loading his family’s possessions into a Chevrolet Suburban as Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast, with landfall predicted to be anywhere between New Orleans and Houston.
"Get mamma and papa," Griffith’s wife, Beautie Green, 27, told their 9-year-old son, Lawrence Edwards. The boy returned dutifully moments later carrying boxes containing the cremated remains of her mother and Griffith’s father. Green loaded the ashes into the Suburban.
"My mother got through Katrina but it took so much out of her, she took sick and died right after it," she said, stuffing birth certificates and pictures of her children into a folder. "Now here we go again."
The city had ordered a mandatory evacuation beginning at 8 a.m. today, but at 9:30 a.m., Griffith said he hadn’t seen any police cruisers in the neighborhood making sure people were leaving.
"I got three children, man, I can’t risk staying," he said. "If what happened during Katrina happens again, I’m never coming back. You just get tired of it, man."
Ready this time
Three years after Katrina flooded the city and almost wiped it off the map, New Orleans is the "Big Uneasy" again, anxiously waiting to see if Gustav scores a direct hit or makes landfall farther west.
Mayor Ray Nagin has called Gustav "the mother of all hurricanes," and he might be forgiven the hyperbole; given the chance that the storm may strengthen over the balmy Gulf waters and actually be stronger than Katrina when it makes landfall on Monday, he doesn’t want residents to think they can ride this one out too.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew is in effect and the mayor was adamant that looters would be dealt with severely. "Looters caught will go directly to general population in 'the Big House,’ the Louisiana state pen, Angola prison," he said.
Louisiana National Guardsmen are stationed across the city to help keep the peace. Their role is not to evacuate people, but to prevent crime. Several of them, with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, said they took their roles personally.
"We’re from Louisiana and, for Katrina, we were all in Iraq," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Simoneaux. "This time we’re here and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We want everyone to know we’re here."
Some of the guardsmen even had cameras to record the events.
New Orleans first responders were not only working around the clock, but their minds were also on their own families and homes. In the Lower Ninth Ward, firefighter Jimmie Harris wearily nailed sheets of plywood over the windows on his two-story home. An American flag mounted to the front awning blew in the breeze.
Harris had just finished an overnight shift and was due back at work in the afternoon.
He said it took him two-and-half years to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, and like Daryl Griffith, he recently moved his family back from Houston.
"If we take another hit like Katrina, I don’t think there is any way we could rebuild again," he said, hammering another nail.
Texans leaving too
Along the Texas Gulf Coast, mandatory evacuation started in waves this morning. Communities closest to the coast put orders in place at 6 a.m. In Beaumont, the voluntary evacuation became mandatory at noon, but many residents weren’t waiting until the deadline.
Officials at the special needs evacuation site said things were going pretty smoothly, due in large part to the 211 system that lets them keep track of people who need assistance leaving, and a much more organized system for equipment. About 2,000 people have been helped, authorities said.
Beaumont public transit buses are shuttling residents from neighborhood schools to evacuation centers. Once there, they register with city fire and rescue personnel, who give them a yellow identification bracelet. The bracelet is stamped with the state seal, a barcode and a toll-free phone number.
The barcode is linked to a database maintained by the Texas Army National Guard. It’s the same system the guard used to track personnel coming and going from Iraq, said Lt. Sheila Tidrick.
Guard troops scan the bracelets as evacuees board busses headed north. They’ll be scanned again when evacuees reach shelters. If evacuees are separated from their families, they can call the phone number to find them.
Sunday morning, Cpl. Darrell Fountain was scanning passengers as they boarded buses. He said the mood at the evacuation center was calm. "It’s a great system," said Fountain, who handed out water after Hurricane Rita. "It makes the process much faster, which keeps them from waiting very long to get on a bus."
The buses also have GPS tracking units and a list of numbers to call in case of an emergency, according to a group of charter bus drivers who showed off their brand new state-issued cell phones while waiting to take evacuees to Tyler.
It was unclear how many of Beaumont’s 114,000 residents had already evacuated by Sunday, when an evacuation order became mandatory. But the town was largely deserted, with plywood boards covering windows at several businesses.
Texas National Guard troops from Austin filled the lobby of a Beaumont hotel. Their unit will set up communications for emergency workers when Gustav inevitably knocks power out.
In Port Arthur, Gregory Adams doesn't believe the hurricane churning toward the Gulf coast will pack much punch when it reaches the Hampton Inn, but that didn't stop the maintenance worker from boarding up the building's first-floor windows Sunday afternoon.
"Little wind, little rain," he said as a light breeze offered a little relief from the hot sun. "I don't care, I get paid."
All the hotel guests checked out earlier, and managers planned to decide late Sunday whether to evacuate the last few employees and their families. "We're closed to new arrivals, but we're still operating," general manager Cheryl Conner said as The Weather Channel announced storm updates on the hotel lobby's TV.
"Right now, we're calling all of our scheduled arrivals for Tuesday to see if they're still coming."
If they are able to ride out the storm, Conner said she's planning to reopen the hotel Tuesday. "Hopefully, some of my employees will be back," she said. "If not, I've got a niece and a nephew."
Until then, they’ll do the same thing as everybody else that’s not evacuating — wait.
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