New Orleans Braces for Gustav

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Sean Gardner / Reuters

People stand in line at the New Orleans Union Passenger Station before evacuating by train in anticipation of Hurricane Gustav's land fall.

If there were any New Orleans residents thinking about riding out Hurricane Gustav in the city, Mayor Ray Nagin did his best to put the fear of God into them during a Saturday evening news conference.

"I must tell you that this is the mother of all storms. This storm is so powerful, I'm not sure we've ever seen anything like it," he said. "I'm normally trying to give our residents assurances. Take that hat off tonight. You need to be scared. You need to be concerned and you need to get your butts out of New Orleans."

With that, Nagin declared a mandatory evacuation that began at 8 a.m. Sunday for residents living on the west bank of the Mississippi River, and at noon for all other residents. And for the first time in history, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard has called for a mandatory evacuation for the east bank of Jefferson Parish just outside of the New Orleans city limits.

Gustav crossed western Cuba on Saturday and has already killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean. Forecasters said Gustav was likely to grow stronger as it marched toward the coast with top sustained winds of around 115 mph. At 8 p.m. EDT Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said Gustav was a Category 3 storm centered about 175 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving northwest near 17 mph. It had weakened slightly, but forecasters expected it to grow more intense by Monday. The storm could bring a surge of up to 14 feet to the coast and rainfall totals of up to 20 inches.

A hurricane warning was in effect for over 500 miles of Gulf coast from Cameron, La., near the Texas border to the Alabama-Florida state line. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley issued a mandatory evacuation order for some coastal areas of Mobile and Baldwin counties

The specter of the potentially devastating storm caused President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to decide to skip the Republican National Convention, which was supposed to begin Monday in St. Paul, Minn. The White House announced that Bush was heading to Texas Monday to monitor emergency response efforts, and Republican officials have already postponed most of Monday's convention activities. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff headed to the region Sunday and planned to stay for the duration of the storm.

Judging from the miles and miles of bumper to bumper traffic on the major highways, many residents are heeding the official warnings this time. New Orleans native and teacher Kevin Bachemin, 44, is one of them. He was planning to ride out the hurricane in the city until he heard the dire predictions of damage that Hurricane Gustav might cause.

"Things have changed! I'm loading my truck right now," he said Saturday night. "Anybody like me is getting out of here. People were gradually pulling out two days ago. Now they are really moving, trying to get out of here."

Bachemin left New Orleans for Katrina in 2005 but his two-story Gentilly house withstood the storm, receiving two feet of water on the first floor. As a result, he planned to ride out Gustav at home, "when it was a [Category] 2 or even when it was a 3," he said. "Now it's a big storm" and with Nagin issuing a mandatory evacuation, "I don't have a choice. I'm getting out."

Residents along the Louisiana Gulf Coast began to leave Friday. Preparations began a couple of days before that with residents boarding windows, buying generators, batteries and water, and filling up their cars with gas. Traffic mixed with evacuees and fans headed to the first Louisiana State University football game of the season started to back up on I-10 West toward Baton Rouge Friday evening. A drive that normally takes a little more than an hour took about two and a half hours.

Evacuations intensified Saturday morning after coastal parishes issued mandatory evacuation orders. New Orleans began its new city-assisted evacuation program at 8 a.m. Saturday. Residents who had no other means to get out of the city were allowed to bring one bag and a pet in a carrier to various locations where they could board city buses that took them to the Union Passenger Terminal, the city's bus and train station. Officials worked all night to process residents there, and by Sunday morning, the city had processed more than 10,000 residents to get out by bus or train. Those on the buses were being taken to shelters in Shreveport, Monroe or Alexandria. Those on the train and chartered planes, including tourists, were being transported out of state, to places such as Memphis, Tenn.

Over the weekend, Louisiana and Mississippi temporarily changed traffic flow so all highway lanes led away from the coast, and cars were packed bumper-to-bumper. Stores and restaurants shut down, hotels closed and windows were boarded up. Some who planned to stay changed their mind at the last second, not willing to risk the worst.

Officials had estimated that about 30,000 New Orleans residents would need evacuation assistance before the program closed late Sunday afternoon. "We had more than enough buses to evacuate," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said Saturday afternoon. "New Orleans will run [the evacuation program] as long as people show up needing assistance."

By late Sunday Col. Mike Edmondson, state police commander, said he believed that 90% of the population had fled the Louisiana coast. The exodus of 1.9 million people is the largest evacuation in state history, and thousands more had left from Mississippi, Alabama and flood-prone southeast Texas.

Nagin instituted a dusk-to-dawn curfew to take effect at sunset and continue until the storm has passed. The curfew, which will be enforced with the help of almost 2,000 National Guard troops being deployed to the city, allows officials to arrest residents if they are not on their own property. "Looting will not be tolerated," Nagin said. "Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time."

Jindal also reported that helicopters and 250 ambulances were available to evacuate patients in hospitals and nursing homes and make sure that some of the worst scenes from Katrina — the sick and infirm left behind — would not be repeated. Patients from 29 hospitals were evacuated to facilities outside of the state, 160 vehicles were available to evacuate pets, and 8,000 prisoners were evacuated.

Officials have warned residents that if they choose to stay they will be on their own. "We need you to heed this warning, because we do not have the resources to rescue you," Nagin said. "Make sure you have an ax because you will be busting out of your attic to get to your roof. Get out now. This is not a storm to play with."

Late Sunday, Jindal issued one last plea to the roughly 100,000 people still left on the coast: "If you've not evacuated, please do so. There are still a few hours left."

This article includes reporting by the Associated Press