Mayor Ray Nagin issued the first mandatory evacuation order of New Orleans since the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster late Saturday, warning residents that Gustav could be the "mother of all storms."
An estimated 1 million people still fresh with memories of the destruction of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sought to leave the Gulf Coast on Saturday by bus, train, plane and car to escape the storm. Fleeing residents jammed some major highways, emptied gas stations of fuel and overloaded phone circuits.
The National Hurricane Center said Gustav weakened slightly but was expected to regain strength as it moves over warm waters toward the U.S. coast, possibly becoming a Category 4 hurricane later Sunday. Forecasters upgraded a hurricane watch to a warning for a swath of over 500 miles, from Louisiana near the Texas border to the Alabama-Florida state line.
At 5 p.m. EDT Sunday, the National Hurricane Center said Gustav was a Category 3 storm centered about 215 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving northwest near 18 mph. It had top sustained winds of around 115 mph. It had weakened slightly, but forecasters said some intensification was possible by Monday.
Category 3 storms have winds between 111 mph and 130 mph; Category 4 storms can have winds as fierce as 155 mph.
The storm is projected to make U.S. landfall as early Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center, and could bring a storm surge of up to 20 feet to the coast and rainfall totals of some 15 inches.
President Bush on Sunday said he would skip the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., and head instead to Texas to be with evacuees and emergency responders. President Bush was scheduled to give a speech Monday night.
"There's a lot of preparations that have gone in, in anticipation of this storm," Mr. Bush said, after a briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters.
FEMA Director David Paulison told reporters a few hours after Bush's visit: "I think we have plenty of opportunity to get people out in time. It's those who are choosing not to get out that concerns me."
Gustav has killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean. The storm ripped through Cuba's tobacco-growing western tip Saturday after sweeping over Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica late last week.
Hurricane Gustav is the biggest storm to threaten the U.S. gulf coast since Katrina and Rita three years ago and comes as New Orleans is still struggling to rebuild from the massive flooding and city-wide devastation caused by Katrina.
In New Orleans, Nagin used tough talk to urge the residents to evacuate.
"This is the real deal, not a test," Nagin said as he issued the evacuation order Saturday night, according to the Associated Press. "For everyone thinking they can ride this storm out, I have news for you: that will be one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life."
Nagin's warnings, however, appeared slightly more severe than those of forecasters who said the storm should make landfall somewhere between Mississippi and East Texas, where evacuations were also under way. It's too early to know whether New Orleans will take another direct hit, they said, according to media reports.
But city officials weren't taking any chances and Nagin warned that there would be no shelter of "last resort" and said the city will not offer emergency services to those who choose stay behind.
In contrast to the evacuation disarray three years ago amid Katrina, a revamped plan appeared to function more smoothly in New Orleans over the weekend with17 city-assisted evacuation bus pick up points throughout the city.
"I'm not staying for 'em any more," Lester Harris, a 53-year-old electrician waiting at a bus pickup point in the Lower 9th Ward, told the AP. "I got caught in the water and spent two days on my roof. No food, no water. It was pretty bad," he said of his experience during Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina was a Category 3 when its 28-foot storm surge burst the levees protecting New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, flooding some 80 percent of the city. Federal officials say the levees protecting the city are stronger now but that some of the neighborhoods hardest hit during Katrina are still vulnerable to levee overflows.
"The system itself is stronger than it was before Katrina," Maj. Timothy Kurgan, the chief of the public affairs office for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, said of the city's flood defenses, according to the New York Times.
"It's hard to believe it's happening again," New Orleans resident Leaura Landis told Reuters. "This was just how it was in Katrina ... We joked that we would all be back home in three days, but we came back three years later."