As Storm Season Looms, New Orleans Still Debating How It Would Evacuate Thousands Of Residents

Wednesday, April 4th 2007, 8:03 pm
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ With hurricane season less than two months away and memories of Katrina less than two years old, city leaders are still trying to sort out how they will evacuate residents this year if another storm approaches.

Tourism leaders oppose using the convention center as a staging ground to evacuate the city's neediest, fearing it would hurt the travel economy by reviving images of the misery it harbored after Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005. Their resistance poses a potentially serious setback for emergency planners.

Travel itself is also posing a problem. After the chaos of Katrina, the city decided it would not open shelters in the city, instead taking needy people by train or bus to shelters elsewhere in Louisiana and perhaps other states. Yet the city has not reached an agreement with federal agencies about using Amtrak trains, said Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, the city's director of emergency preparedness.

Sneed expressed confidence that a plan would be in place by June 1, the start of hurricane season.

``We need a place where we can quickly account for and process what will be 20,000, 25,000 citizens who may need assistance,'' Sneed said.

Using the convention center is critical to the evacuation plan because of its amenities and its ideal location near interstate highways, the Mississippi River and railroad lines, he said. It might take a day to process everyone, and they would need air conditioning and toilets, he said.

Other locations are available, including the University of New Orleans and a municipal auditorium, said Ralph Brennan, a restaurateur and convention center commissioner.

``We're not being inhumane,'' Brennan said. ``There are alternatives. If there was no alternative, it would be inhumane.''

The city has identified alternatives, Sneed said, but he would not disclose details. He has also suggested building a new structure that could be used as a processing center, he said.

The convention center and the Louisiana Superdome became symbols of Katrina-caused misery as thousands who had been unable or unwilling to leave the city jammed both, suffering in sweltering heat without electricity and little food or water.

``You've seen the images. We almost lost the convention industry after Katrina, and if there hadn't been a lot of quick, hard work, we could have lost our industry,'' Brennan said.

Last year, Amtrak set aside about 24 carriages for an evacuation. Those are still available, Sneed said, but no agreement has been reached with Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration to use them this year.

Amtrak and Railroad Administration officials declined to comment.