BELLE CHASSE, La. — Bonnie was downgraded to a depression Friday, but still packed enough kick to prompt emergency declarations along Louisiana’s coast and make officials begin the tedious preparation for tropical storm-force wind and rain bearing down on the shore.
“We always prepare for one category stronger than the projections, so we think it’s prudent to plan for a Category 1 hurricane,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said during a news conference flanked by Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and other officials.
Jindal said coastal parishes and some as far inland as East Baton Rouge Parish have issued emergency declarations that allow local governments to take actions such as arranging for debris removal or stockpiling supplies.
Plaquemines and Lafourche parishes were calling for voluntary evacuations of low-lying areas and St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro issued a similar order for those living outside the hurricane levee protection system.
Nungesser said a shelter in his parish’s north end will likely open Saturday.
“A lot of elderly people down here fear being cut off from medical (help), with the road under water,” he said. “If that does happen, the only way out is on top of the levee and a lot of elderly people do not like driving on top of the levee.”
Jindal noted numerous local precautionary actions to deal with the approaching weather, including the transfer of more than 360 inmates from temporary structures at the Orleans Parish Prison to the state penitentiary at Angola. Inmates had to be evacuated from there to a nearby highway overpass amid flooding during 2005′s Hurricane Katrina.
The storm sidetracked work to kill the BP well that has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf after an April explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig. BP had hoped to finish drilling a relief tunnel Friday, but had to end that work to prepare for Bonnie.
The governor lamented the delays and said the storm precautions will hamper cleanup of the oil that is still in the water.
“Obviously with this storm coming toward our coast, that has the chance of pushing more oil into our coast, into our wetlands. Obviously this will interrupt efforts like the skimmers, make the boom less effective. We saw it happen with Alex, where more oil got into the wetlands, where more of that boom was damaged,” he said.
Taffaro said oil spill response operations should resume early next week.
“We anticipate that we will be redeploying boom as soon as Monday. We have 350,000 feet of boom that we will continue to pick up as much as we can safely do, depending on weather conditions on Saturday,” he said.
In Grand Isle, residents feared Bonnie would cancel Island Aid — a daylong series of concerts and auctions on Saturday intended as a substitute for the island’s biggest money making event, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo. The rodeo was canceled after the oil spill shut down local fishing waters.
But, the organizers said Friday that the concert would go on as scheduled.
“If things stay as they are right now, it looks as if we will escape most of the storm,” said Cheryl McCormick at the Grand Isle Police Station.
Island Aid promoters are expecting between 10,000 and 20,000 to attend.
Meanwhile, dozens of people basked under the sun, which was sometimes hidden by overcast skies, on the beaches at Ocean Springs along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Tom Sellers, who lives on the beach, laughed when asked if he would board up his brick home to protect against tropical weather.
“No. If it becomes a Category 1 by tomorrow (Saturday), I might pick up some of the stuff in the yard,” Sellers said. “I’ve got some tin I could put over the windows.”
But Sellers said he is concerned that strong winds will stir up the oil in the Gulf. He said Ocean Springs has planted oak trees and hedges along the beach and there’s a walking park and a splash park for children.
“If that oil comes in here, it’s going to make a big mess,” Sellers said. “If it comes in here, all this they planted is going to be dead.”
Further up U.S. 90 in Pascagoula, the beach was deserted, with few signs of residents boarding their homes in anticipation of rough weather.
Associated Press writers Mary Foster contributed from Grand Isle, La., and Shelia Hardwell contributed from Ocean Springs, Miss.
The Associated Press