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In the Track of the Storm (again)

Mother Nature seems to like beating up on New Orleans. Now, just three years after the Katrina disaster when the Category 3 hurricane slammed into New Orleans and the ocean surge crumbled and over washed the levees, a new natural monster named Gustav is bearing down on the Gulf Coast. How we deal with natural disasters are one aspect of infrastructure security and hazards response.

As the hours pass, the story and the projected storm track changes. In disguise, that is both a blessing and a curse. We will also get to see just how much was learned about emergency preparedness and response for a natural disaster has advanced in these three years. No longer do we have the excuse of blaming an unprepared Department of Homeland Security or FEMA, no longer will we have the ineptitude of the local politicians to point at as people stand on their roofs awaiting rescue. Some of the predictions are ominous. This will certainly test our ability to deal with an All Hazards Response that defines the three threats as manmade, natural disaster and terrorist.

4 p.m. UPDATE: Gustav's winds have increased to 150 mph this afternoon, bringing it to the cusp of category 5 status prior to landfall in Cuba. The official track this afternoon remains largely unchanged and is focused on central Louisiana, although the hurricane center now forecasts the storm to come ashore in just two days time.

New Orleans began evacuation on Friday and continued into Saturday. Places like Beaumont Texas were evacuated as well. Over 1 million people are in the process of fleeing the Coast. However, it is very likely that Gustav will reach Category Five early Sunday before it makes landfall. Some people waited on long lines for buses and trains to evacuate from the Coast area. Others, express intentions to “ride out the storm” despite the now mandatory evacuation order from New Orleans Mayor, Ray Nagin who called called Gustav the storm of the century and told residents to "get your butts out of New Orleans now."

Unlike Katrina, when thousands took refuge inside the Superdome, there will be no "last resort" shelter, and those who stay behind accept "all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones," said the city's emergency preparedness director, Jerry Sneed. Yet the presence of 2,000 National Guard troops that were expected to join 1,400 New Orleans police officers patrolling the streets following the evacuation - along with Gov. Bobby Jindal's request to neighboring states for rescue teams - suggested officials were expecting stragglers.

Regardless, the City of San Antonio now the focal point for the evacuation and disaster response efforts. The game plan is being coordinated by the City’s new Emergency Operations Command Center located at the converted Brooks City Base and at Lackland Air Force Base, preparations are being made to begin receiving evacuees. Over 200 buses had staged at the old Kelly Air Force Base, now called Port San Antonio, to be used during Coastal evacuations (officials actually expect more than 1000 buses to be ready for deployment).

Jack Colley, head of the Texas Division of Emergency Management made the following comment:

“Our job is to control Gustav and not let Gustav control us,” Colley said Friday from the State Operations Center. “This is a very dangerous storm, make no doubt about it.” Evacuation orders must come from local governments; those decisions would be made about 48 hours before Gustav's arrival.

According to the latest advisory (8pm Eastern on Saturday, August 30, 2008), the minimum central pressure of Gustav is 941 mbar (compared to the 904 mbar recorded by Katrina when it made landfall). Make no mistake about it that our ability to deal with a natural disaster like Hurricane Gustav tells us volumes about how we would be able to respond to a mass casualty terrorist attack.