Gulf braces for the storm

Authorities across the Gulf Coast region began laying the groundwork Thursday to get the sick, elderly and poor away from the shoreline.

The first batch of 700 buses that could ferry residents inland was being sent to a staging area near New Orleans, and officials in Mississippi were trying to decide when to move Katrina-battered residents along the coast who were still living in temporary homes, including trailers vulnerable to high wind.

The planning for an evacuation is part of a massive outline drafted after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore three years ago, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans and stranding thousands who couldn't get out in time. As the region prepared to mark the storm's anniversary today, officials expressed confidence those blueprints made them ready for Gustav.

“There are a lot of things that are different between now and what we faced in 2005 when Katrina came ashore,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who flew to Louisiana to meet with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Bobby Jindal. “We've had three years to put together a plan that never existed before.”

With Gustav still several days away, authorities cautioned that no plans were set in stone, and had not yet called for residents to leave. Projections showed the storm arriving early next week as a Category 3 storm, with winds of 111 mph or greater, anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to eastern Texas. But forecasts are extremely tentative several days out.

In a conference call between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local officials, Harvey Johnson, FEMA's deputy administrator, cautioned that officials needed to stick to protocols as the storm unfolded.

“It's very, very important that we play the way we practiced and trained over the last year and a half,” he said. “There's a way that we operate. There's a chain of command. There's a way that we interact with each other. And we can't afford to be in a disorganized way as we confront the challenges that we're going to see here over the next five or six days.”

Governors in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas pre-declared states of emergency in an attempt to build a foundation for federal assistance. Federal officials said resources and personnel to provide post-storm aid were pouring in from other parts of the country Thursday.

The city said it is prepared to move 30,000 residents in an evacuation; estimates put the city's current population between 310,000 to 340,000 people. There were about 454,000 here before Katrina hit. Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome, a plan designed to encourage residents to leave.