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Western La. braces for Rita, while New Orleans keeps eye on levees

BATON ROUGE, La.—As Hurricane Rita's projected path veered closer to Louisiana on Thursday, communities in the southwestern part of the state that escaped the brunt of Katrina prepared for a brutal hit of their own.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco late Thursday told the residents of nine parishes south of Interstate 10 that they must evacuate.

"Rita has Louisiana in her sights," she said.

At the same time, officials kept their fingers crossed that the storm would stay far enough west so that New Orleans' weakened levee system would hold.

As many as half a million people live in communities that appeared to be at risk. Hospital patients were moved, prisoners were transferred and troops were asked to stand by. Blanco recommended that thousands more residents move north—though not to Baton Rouge, which is already full of Katrina evacuees.

"I cannot say this strongly enough. If you live in low-lying areas ... you must evacuate." Those who don't, she said, "should write their Social Security numbers on their arms in indelible ink."

Of particular concern were the major population centers of Lake Charles (72,000 people) and, to a lesser degree, Lafayette (110,000 people).

The governor said that she'd been told to expect a 15- to 20-foot storm surge in Vermilion Bay, south of Lafayette.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that while his city appeared to be out of the storm's direct path, Rita could bring 3- to 5-foot storm surges. The Army Corps of Engineers told Nagin that the city's weakened levees should be able to handle that. Still, a mandatory evacuation is in effect on the city's East Bank, and a voluntary one in the West Bank neighborhood of Algiers.

But the city—which only recently saw the majority of Katrina's floodwaters recede—probably will experience new floods. In part, that's because several key pumping stations had to be shut off when major canals that suffered Katrina damage were sealed.

There were reports Thursday that water was leaking through the Industrial Canal into the Lower Ninth Ward and was more than a foot deep in places, but Nagin said he was unaware of flooding in that area.

In addition, work was continuing on weakened portions of the flood protection walls in neighboring parishes that were inundated by Katrina floodwaters. That flooding was a major contributor to Katrina's death toll, which on Thursday officially reached 832 in Louisiana alone.

Johnny Bradberry, the secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, said that levees in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes might handle surges of 3 to 4 feet, but he was unsure.

Don Smithburg, the chief of the Louisiana State University hospital system, the state's public hospitals, said he evacuated the critical care patients from the hospital in Lake Charles ahead of Hurricane Rita on Wednesday and was in the process of evacuating the rest of the facility Thursday.

"We're not waiting for somebody else to give us the high sign," he said. "We are taking matters into our own hands."

He learned that from Hurricane Katrina, he said. He was still deciding Thursday whether to evacuate the hospital in Lafayette, though he likely will have to if patients arrive from facilities farther west, he said.

New shelter space was being prepared in the northern part of the state. About 12,000 new shelter spaces have been added for evacuees, and state officials are looking for more, said Terri Ricks, undersecretary of the state Department of Social Services.

More than 820 buses are standing near the areas Rita could hit, state officials said. An additional 160 are on standby in Alexandria, and the state has requested 450 more for the southwestern and southeastern parts of the state.

Richard Stalder, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, said about 1,700 inmates from southwest Louisiana are being evacuated to other facilities in the state.

Thousands of troops also are setting up on the edge of Rita's path and will move in as soon as winds drop to safe levels, state officials said.

Blanco asked for 15,000 additional National Guard troops to be sent to Louisiana with boats, helicopters and high-water vehicles to conduct possible search-and-rescue missions and evacuations, security, engineering and logistics tasks, said Jack Harrison, a National Guard spokesman in Washington, D.C.

Nagin said he knows how the residents of towns squarely in Rita's path feel.

"Our hearts go out to you," he said. "Our prayers go out to you. We wish that this storm decides to turn at the last minute, but if it doesn't, we're ready to provide whatever little support we can."

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(Friedrich of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported from Baton Rouge, and Spangler of The Miami Herald and Estwick of the Akron Beacon Journal from New Orleans. Susannah Nesmith of The Miami Herald contributed from New Orleans and David Sneed of The (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) Tribune contributed from Baton Rouge. Drew Brown contributed from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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