|Residents took to buses, trains, planes, and car -- clogging roadways leading away from New Orleans, still reeling three years after Hurricane Katrina. At left, slow going yesterday on Interstate 10 out of New Orleans. (AP Photo)|
Fearing Gustav, 1 million flee Gulf Coast
Storm could make landfall tomorrow
NEW ORLEANS - Spooked by predictions that Hurricane Gustav could grow into a Category 5 monster, an estimated 1 million residents fled the Gulf Coast yesterday - well ahead of the official order to get out of the way of a storm taking dead aim at Louisiana.
Mayor Ray Nagin, saying the danger to the city was growing, ordered the mandatory evacuation of the city's west bank at 8 a.m. today. The order will become mandatory on the east bank at noon.
Yesterday, residents took to buses, trains, planes, and cars - clogging roadways leading away from New Orleans, still reeling three years after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and killed about 1,600 across the region.
The hurricane slammed into Cuba's mainland after roaring over its Isla de Juventud province, where it toppled telephone poles, mango, and almond trees and peeled back the tin roofs of homes.
Ana Isla, the province's civil defense chief, said there were many people injured on the island south of mainland Cuba, but no reports of deaths. She said nearly all its roads were washed out and that some regions were heavily flooded.
Authorities evacuated at least 240,000 people from western Cuba, including Isla de la Juventud. The storm has already killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean.
If current forecasts hold up, Gustav will make landfall tomorrow afternoon somewhere between the northeast corner of Texas and western Mississippi.
Forecasters warned it was still too soon to say whether New Orleans would take another direct hit, but residents weren't taking any chances judging by the bumper-to-bumper traffic pouring from the city. Gas stations along interstate highways were running out of fuel, and phone circuits were jammed.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said they were surprised at how quickly Gustav gained strength as it charged toward Cuba. It went from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane in about 24 hours, and was likely to become a Category 5 - with sustained winds of 156 miles per hour or more - by today.
"That puts a different light on our evacuations and hopefully that will send a very clear message to the people in the Gulf Coast to really pay attention," said Federal Emergency Management Agency chief David Paulison.
President Bush, faced with the prospect of a second monster hurricane striking the still-battered Gulf Coast on his watch, checked in with governors and federal officials yesterday to make sure Washington was doing all it can. He prepared for the possibility of travel to the region and designated two more states eligible for federal help ahead of Gustav's landfall.
The president called state leaders in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas in the early morning from the White House
Residents were streaming out of New Orleans before the mandatory evacuation order had not yet been issued for the city. Hotels closed, and the airport prepared to follow suit. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff planned to travel to Louisiana today to observe preparations.
As part of the evacuation plan New Orleans developed after Hurricane Katrina, residents who had no other way to get out of the city waited on a line that snaked for more than a mile through the parking lot of the city's Union Passenger Terminal. From there, they were to board motor coaches bound for shelters in north Louisiana.
"I don't like it," said Joseph Jones Jr., 61, who draped a towel over his head to block the blazing sun. "Going someplace you don't know, people you don't know. And then when you come back, is your house going to be OK?"
Jones had been in line for 2 1/2 hours, but he wasn't complaining. During Katrina, he'd been stranded on a highway overpass.
Others led children or pushed strollers with one hand and pulled luggage with the other. Volunteers handed out bottled water, and medics were nearby in case people became sick from the heat.
Unlike Katrina, when thousands took refuge inside the Superdome, there will be no "last resort" shelter, and those who stay behind accept "all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones," said the city's emergency preparedness director, Jerry Sneed.
Yet the presence of 2,000 National Guard troops that were expected to join 1,400 New Orleans police officers patrolling the streets following the evacuation - along with Governor Bobby Jindal's request to neighboring states for rescue teams - suggested officials were expecting stragglers.
Standing outside his restaurant in the city's Faubourg Marigny district, Dale DeBruyne prepared for Gustav the way he did for Katrina - stubbornly. "I'm not leaving," he said.
DeBruyne, 52, said his house was stocked with storm supplies, including generators. "I stayed for Katrina," he said, "and I'll stay again."
Others were taking no chances.
Lee Isaacson, 52, a computer consultant, was boarding up windows in his home, which flooded during Katrina. He planned to take his family to North Carolina. "We're doing this more for looters than the storm," Isaacson said, recalling the chaos that followed Katrina.
Many residents said the evacuation was more orderly than Katrina, although a plan to electronically log and track evacuees with a bar code system failed and was aborted to keep the buses moving. Officials said information on evacuees would be taken when they reached their destinations.
Advocates criticized the decision not to establish a shelter, warning that day laborers and the poorest residents will fall through the cracks. About two dozen men gathered under oak trees near Claiborne Avenue, where on better days they would be waiting for work rebuilding from Katrina.