By STACEY PLAISANCE
Associated Press Writers
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- National Guard troops stand ready, batteries and water bottles are selling briskly, and one small-town mayor has spent a sleepless night worrying. The New Orleans area is watching as a storm marches across the Caribbean on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's third anniversary.
With forecasters warning that Gustav could strengthen and slam into the Gulf Coast as a major hurricane, a New Orleans still recovering from Hurricane Katrina's devastating hit drew up evacuation plans.
"I'm panicking," said Evelyn Fuselier of Chalmette, whose home was submerged in 14 feet of floodwater when Katrina hit. Fuselier said she's been back in her home one year this month, and called watching Gustav swirl toward the Gulf of Mexico indescribable. "I keep thinking, 'Did the Corps fix the levees?,' 'Is my house going to flood again?' ... 'Am I going to have to go through all this again?"'
Taking no chances, city officials began preliminary planning to evacuate and lock down the city in hopes of avoiding the catastrophe that followed the 2005 storm. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin left the Democratic National Convention in Denver to return home for the preparations. Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency to lay the groundwork for federal assistance, and put 3,000 National Guard troops on standby.
A day after stalling off Haiti's coast, Gustav was centered about 80 miles east of Kingston, Jamaica, and moving toward the west-southwest near 8 mph at 5 a.m. EDT Thursday. The storm was expected to pass very close to Jamaica later in the day, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It's maximum sustained winds were near 50 mph.
Meanwhile, a new tropical depression formed farther east in the Atlantic with winds near 35 mph.
Forecasters said Wednesday that Gustav could strengthen to a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 111 mph or higher in the next several days before hitting somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and Texas.
If a Category 3 or stronger hurricane comes within 60 hours of the city, New Orleans plans to institute a mandatory evacuation order. Unlike Katrina, there will be no massive shelter at the Superdome, a plan designed to encourage residents to leave. Instead, the state has arranged for buses and trains to take people to safety.
It was unclear what would happen to stragglers. Jerry Sneed, the city's emergency preparedness director, said officials are ready to move about 30,000 people. Nearly 8,000 people had signed up for transportation help by late Wednesday.
At a suburban Lowe's store, employees said portable generators, gasoline cans, bottled water and batteries were selling briskly. Hotels across south Louisiana reported taking many reservations as coastal residents looked inland for possible refuge.
Steve Weaver, 82, and his wife stayed for Katrina -- and were plucked off the roof of their house by a Coast Guard helicopter. This time, Weaver has no inclination to ride out the storm.
"Everybody learned a lesson about staying, so the highways will be twice as packed this time," Weaver said.
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, and its storm surge blasted through the levees that protect the city. Eighty percent of the city was flooded.
Though pockets of New Orleans are well on the way to recovery, many neighborhoods have struggled to recover. Many residents still live in temporary trailers, and shuttered homes still bear the 'X' that was painted to help rescue teams looking for the dead.
Many people never returned, and the city's population, around 310,000 people, is roughly two-thirds what it was before the storm, though various estimates vary wildly.
Since the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent billions of dollars to improve the levee system, but because of two quiet hurricane seasons, the flood walls have never been tested.
Floodgates have been installed on drainage canals to stop any storm surge from entering the city, and levees have been raised and in many places strengthened with concrete.
Robert Turner Jr., the regional levee director, said the levee system can handle a storm with the likelihood of occurring every 30 years, what the corps calls a 30-year storm. By comparison, Katrina was a 396-year storm.
Gustav formed Monday and roared ashore Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane near the southern Haitian city of Jacmel with top winds near 90 mph, toppling palm trees and flooding the city's Victorian buildings.
The storm triggered flooding and landslides that killed 23 people in the Caribbean. It weakened into a tropical storm and appeared headed for Jamaica, though it is likely to grow stronger in the coming days by drawing energy from warm, open water.
Scientists cautioned that the storm's track and intensity were difficult to predict several days in advance.
But in New Orleans, there was little else to do except prepare as if it were Katrina. The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals planned to move animals to shelters elsewhere in the state and in Texas.
In Grand Isle, tractor loads of dirt and clay mud were being hauled in to fill portions of the levee system damaged by Katrina, said Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle. The coastal community south of New Orleans historically is one of the first to evacuate when tropical weather threatens and was hard-hit by Katrina.
"I couldn't sleep last night," Camardelle said. "We just came back from so much."
Emergency preparations also were under way along Mississippi's coast. The eye of Hurricane Katrina pushed ashore near the small towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Miss., and along the 70-mile coastline, roughly 65,000 homes were destroyed and thousands of businesses and hulking casino barges were wiped out.
The oil market also reacted to the threat. Oil prices jumped above $119 a barrel as workers began to evacuate from the offshore rigs responsible for a quarter of U.S. crude production. Any damage to the oil infrastructure or Gulf Coast refineries could send U.S. pump prices spiking, possibly before the busy Labor Day weekend.
Associated Press Writers Michael Kunzelman, Cain Burdeau, Mary Foster and Alan Sayre in New Orleans and Tamara Lush in Miami contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)