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Tropical Storm Ernesto Becomes Season's First Hurricane


The first Atlantic hurricane of the season is over the Caribbean, and could hit the United States later this week. The Gulf Coast region is watching the progress of Hurricane Ernesto even as it continues to rebuild from the destruction caused one year ago by the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history - Hurricane Katrina.

There are constant reminders along the Gulf Coast of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The way back has been slow, particularly in New Orleans, Louisiana, where the levees surrounding the city were weakened by the storm and gave way.

The head of the federal government's rebuilding effort, Donald Powell, says round-the-clock repair work on the levees is under way under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers.

A corps official has said it is unclear if the entire levee system is ready for another hurricane. But Powell told the Fox News Sunday television program the levees have already been restored to pre-Katrina levels.

"There has been an extraordinary effort by the Corps of Engineers on restoring and repairing the levees. And I believe the levees are ready for the hurricane season," said Powell.

That means the levees can survive a category three hurricane, which in most years is the worst type of storm to hit the region. Katrina, however, was a much stronger category five and there remain fears that another "storm of a lifetime" could strike the Gulf.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu praises the work done on the levees over the course of the last year, but worries it is not enough. During an appearance on ABC television's This Week, she said it will take years to strengthen the levees to the point where they can withstand a category five hurricane like Katrina.

"We have to do two things. We have to fix the levees and then build them stronger and better and higher. And we can do it. The great news is we have the money to do it," said Landrieu.

The concerns about Hurricane Ernesto come as President Bush prepares to travel to the region to mark the one year anniversary of Katrina. Officials at all levels of government point to better coordination among federal, state and local authorities. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told NBC's Meet the Press that his city is much better prepared now than it was for Hurricane Katrina.

"We have a complete plan which deals with all of our emergency responders. We also have coordinated with the state for 3,000 National Guard troops that will descend upon the city if it is imminent that the hurricane is coming to us and then we will be ready to evacuate and secure the city and hunker down for the storm," added Nagin.

The head of the federal government's emergency management agency says the New Orleans area may be spared the full fury of Hurricane Ernesto. David Paulison says current tracking shows the storm will veer right of its current path and will likely make U.S. landfall along the northwest edge of Florida.

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