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Ernesto may be in gulf by Tuesday

What was to have been a weekend of remembrance of Hurricane Katrina’s death and destruction became a weekend of worry as Tropical Storm Ernesto gathered strength in the Caribbean.

A forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami cautioned that it was too soon to say whether Ernesto would hit the United States. Still, with projections that Ernesto could reach the Gulf of Mexico as a hurricane by Tuesday, weary New Orleans residents kept one eye on the forecast.

Bari Landry, who lives in a New Orleans neighborhood heavily flooded by Katrina, said that after seing the possible storm track she decided to make a reservation for a hotel room in Houston for Thursday through Saturday.

“There may be panic, but we know the drill,” she said.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco said state officials were keeping an eye on Ernesto.

“It’s critical we make the right call for the right reason,” she said, cautioning that they want to ward off the chance of unnecessary evacations.

Officials from the state, city and 14 parishes were to talk by conference call late Saturday, New Orleans Homeland Security chief Terry Ebbert said.

“We have a solid plan,” Ebbert said. “All we need to do is watch the storm and the timing.”

Ernesto gained strength in the Caribbean even as a weekend of events marking the Katrina anniversary was getting underway. But the weather was again causing problems. Driving rain doused scores of people gathered outside the Superdome for one observance.

Other anniversary activities included marches, and religious services, many of them outdoors, on a day when thunderstorms were predicted throughout the day.

Those storms were not related to Ernesto, which was days away from having any possible effect on the area.

Depending on the strength and track of Ernesto, New Orleans could begin evacuations when it is 54-hours from landfall, Ebbert said.

“That’s the hour we work back from,” Ebbert said. “Once we get a good fix on the storm and the track we put our plans in place.”

Mandatory evacuation in the parishes below New Orleans would kick in with the storm 50 hours out, Ebbert said. New Orleans would begin mandatory evacuation at the 40-hour mark.

New Orleans has buses and trains under contract to evacuate people without the means to leave, he said.

“Every bus, before it leaves will have a destination and will be escorted by state police,” Ebbert said. “We will have a complete list of the people on it as well. The object is to prevent the confusion we had during Katrina when people couldn’t find each other.”

There is also a scenario where people in trailers — which would be vulnerable to winds lower than hurricane strength — would have to sheltered even if an evacuation was not called, Ebbert said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says more than 73,000 of its trailers are occupied by hurricane victims in Louisiana, and more than 32,000 in Mississippi. The Louisiana figure includes victims of Hurricane Rita, which struck Sept. 24 2005.