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Waiting for the weather

An observation on hurricane Gustav

"Does the government get up you in England?" Michael Ward, a software engineer with a goatee and a closet full of firearms, was propping up the bar at Monroe airport in northern Louisiana, where Second World War bomber navigators once trained to find German cities using sextants and dead reckoning. Behind quilted leather doors, he clutched a blue bottle of Budweiser and explained: "We have a lot of freedom here."

Over his shoulder, on the muted television in the corner, an angry red welt was spinning across a radar map of the Gulf of Mexico in lurid, computer-generated tones. It was Hurricane Gustav on the warpath. For, while Dixie may be better known for gun-ownership, in the southern United States the right to bear arms extends to the weather, too.

A storm like Gustav is a drama long before it becomes a crisis. Preparations begin as soon as a weather system is spotted far out over the ocean, in this case about a week before its US landfall. And the punditry is equally frenetic. As the hurricane tore through Jamaica and Cuba, the meteorological specialists of the Weather Channel followed it in rolling 24-hour detail.

And, while northern Louisiana is far enough inland to mean that storms have usually blown themselves out by the time they reach the cotton fields and bayous, the effects are still felt there, even while the storm is far offshore. For upstate towns such as Monroe are key destinations for evacuees, and as I headed south on Highway 65 late on Saturday 29 August, the usually deserted opposite lane was crowded with hump-backed sports utility vehicles, driving out of harm's way.

The next day I watched the thunderheads over Lake Bruin, a lazy oxbow abandoned by the Mississippi river, as families at their country homes for the Labor Day weekend fielded calls from friends and relatives to the south in need of homes to escape to. Schoolchildren rejoiced as the state announced that there would be no classes on Tuesday and Wednesday, because the yellow school buses would be needed to transport evacuees.

Most of those at the lake seemed to agree that Louisiana, and its youthful new governor, Bobby Jindal, had the storm preparations under much better control than during the devastation of Hurricane Katrina almost exactly three years ago. Contra-flows kicked in on the highways, reversing southbound lanes so they could carry more evacuee traffic, and by the time Gustav made landfall at Cocodrie, 70 miles from New Orleans, on Monday morning, the Federal Emergency Management Agency claimed that only around 10,000 people were left in the city.

Louisianans are also firm believers in self-reliance. Sitting on a screened porch after nightfall, listening to the wind rise in the trees, Lafayette resident Joseph Mickel, who had driven up to Lake Bruin to escape the storm, told me that many of his neighbours had precut boarding to screw over their windows before leaving. "It has become a cottage industry," he said.

Yet, while Louisiana has always lived with storms, the annual "hurricane season", a barometric jamboree that runs from June to November, has raised its game in recent years. As Sharon Hayes, a 53-year-old teacher whose mother's home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina says: "It seems they are picking up more steam over the Gulf."

But if Gustav really is the latest in a new generation of supersized storms, then the fundamentals of hurricane response have changed too. The authorities have made much of new administrative and technological measures, such as raised concrete towers that allow pump operators to continue to work their machinery from bunker-like safe rooms, even as they are pounded by the storm.

Yet, no matter how sophisticated, a mass evacuation such as has occurred in New Orleans is hugely disruptive. Such measures are one thing as a rare emergency response, but quite another if they are to become an annual event. To a foreign observer, the logistical dance that preceded Gustav had something of, to choose a story that has taken root in Louisiana, an attempt to whistle down the wind.

And, to complicate matters further, despite the satellite imagery, radar probes and the anthropomorphic names that meteorologists append to them, hurricanes remain unpredictable beasts. The Gore-Tex-clad figures on the Weather Channel are soothsayers as well as reporters: a relatively small change in the storm's direction or where it makes landfall can mean the difference between windswept business as usual and catastrophic destruction.

King Lear said: "Blow!/You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/Till you have drench'd our steeples." But, as it was with Katrina, it was not possible to know until the last act if Gustav would turn out to be a tragedy or merely a problem play.