Miss. Guard goes door-to-door to warn of Gustav

Published 11:13 pm Saturday, August 30, 2008

Emergency management officials in Mississippi’s three coastal counties huddled Saturday to plan for the potential of damaging winds and flooding when Gustav is expected to make landfall early next week.

Meanwhile, Mississippi National Guard soldiers went door-to-door in Harrison and Hancock counties to alert thousands of families living in FEMA trailers and cottages that they should be prepared to evacuate Sunday. Residents in flood-prone areas were also being contacted.

Even a glancing blow from a major hurricane would create problems in Mississippi, where coastal communities were flattened by Hurricane Katrina’s deadly wind and massive storm surge in 2005. Thousands of Katrina victims occupy temporary housing in south Mississippi counties ravaged by Katrina.

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Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management agency, said Saturday that Jackson County expected to join the evacuation list on Monday.

Gustav swelled into a major hurricane south of Cuba and could strike the U.S. coast anywhere from Mississippi to Texas by Tuesday.

Forecasters said if Gustav follows the projected path it would likely make landfall on Louisiana’s central coast, sparing New Orleans a direct hit. But forecasters caution it is still too soon to say exactly where the storm will hit.

Rent said officials were taking the hurricane threat very seriously since the entire coast could be hit if the storm veers off its current track.

Gov. Haley Barbour said Saturday he would remain in Mississippi and not travel to the Republican National Convention “until after the effects of Gustav and Hannah are known — and then only if Mississippi is in the clear.”

Pete Smith, a spokesman for Barbour, said the governor would be briefed throughout the day Saturday and planned a news conference at some point. On Friday, Barbour declared a state of emergency and issued a stern warning that the entire state would be affected by a hit from Gustav.

Also Friday, in a letter to President Bush, Barbour requested a federal disaster declaration for the entire state. Barbour said that would begin the process of securing emergency assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency should Gustav hit the Gulf Coast region.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health began evacuating 132 patients at the South Mississippi Regional Medical Center in Long Beach on Saturday. Other evacuations were taking place at community living facilities on the coast, officials said.

While traffic was moving smoothly right along the coast under clear skies and temperatures warming into the low 90s, a steady procession of Louisiana motorists streamed northward on Mississippi interstates toward Jackson and other points to the north. Restaurants all along Interstate 55 as far north as Jackson were filled Friday night with New Orleans-area families heading inland.

“I’m looking out here right now and about every pump is busy,” Neal Bozeman said Saturday at his U.S. Highway 84 Chevron in Brookhaven along Interstate 55. “You can see LSU and Saints jerseys as they get in and out of their cars.”

Bozeman said his station, about 36 miles north of the Louisiana line, was without gasoline for several hours earlier in the week, in large part due to a rush by residents in the area concerned about supplies. He said the demand shifted to Louisiana motorists Thursday and had not let up.

“We’ve got a generator and even if this storm knocks out our power, we will keep pumping the gas,” he said.

Meanwhile, traffic on major roadways along the coast, including heavily traveled U.S. Highway 90 along the beach, was moving normally Saturday.

Vincent Creel, a spokesman for Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway, said crews had moved quickly to complete pending roadwork to free all four lanes for traffic.

“We’ve notified boat owners in harbors and the marina to be ready to move on a moment’s notice,” Creel said.