Image: Traffic leaving New Orleans
Brian Lawdermilk  /  AP
Traffic backs up along westbound Interstate 10 as residents of the New Orleans area evacuate Saturday due to the threat of Hurricane Gustav.
NBC News and news services
updated 8/31/2008 4:10:22 AM ET 2008-08-31T08:10:22

Residents were ordered to flee an only partially rebuilt New Orleans Sunday as another monster storm bore down on Louisiana nearly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina wiped out entire swaths of the city.

Hurricane Gustav, which already killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean, strengthened quickly into a Category 4 and was poised to become a Category 5 storm, packing winds in excess of 156 mph. It slammed Cuba's tobacco-growing western tip before moving away from the island country into the Gulf of Mexico.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin used stark language to urge residents to get out of the city, calling Gustav the "storm of the century."

'Not a test'
"This is the real deal, not a test," Nagin said as he issued the evacuation order Saturday night. "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."

Forecasters were slightly less dire in their predictions, saying the storm should make landfall Monday afternoon somewhere between western 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, but city officials weren't taking any chances.

Gustav's center was about 485 miles southeast of the Mississippi River's mouth at 2 a.m. EDT, with top winds of near 135 mph expected to strengthen as it crosses the central Gulf. It was moving northwest near 15 mph.

The mandatory evacuation of the city's west bank, where levee improvements remain incomplete, was to begin at 8 a.m., with the east bank to follow at noon. It's the first test of a revamped evacuation plan designed to eliminate the chaos, looting and death that followed Katrina.

The city will not offer emergency services to those who choose stay behind, Nagin said, and there will be no "last resort" shelter as there was during Katrina, when thousands suffered inside a squalid Superdome. The city said in a news release that those not on their property after the mandatory evacuation started would be subject to arrest.

1 million flee
Many residents didn't need to be ordered, with an estimated 1 million people fleeing the Gulf Coast on Saturday by bus, train, plane and car. They clogged roadways, emptied gas stations of fuel and jammed phone circuits.

At the city's main transit terminal, a line snaked through the parking lot for more than a mile as residents with no other means of getting out waited to board buses bound for shelters in north Louisiana and beyond.

"I'm not staying for 'em any more," said Lester Harris, a 53-year-old electrician waiting at a bus pickup point in the Lower 9th Ward. He was rescued from his house by boat after Katrina. "I got caught in the water and spent two days on my roof. No food, no water. It was pretty bad."

Mike Mayer, owner of Jefferson Indoor Range and Gun Outlet in suburban Metairie, said sales of guns and ammunition were up.

"My business doubled," he said. "People are afraid of coming back after the storm. ... They want some protection when they walk back in."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff planned to travel to Louisiana on Sunday to observe preparations. And likely GOP presidential nominee John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, were traveling to Mississippi.

'I'll never leave again'
Despite the stern warnings from Nagin and others, the expected arrival of 2,000 National Guard troops suggested officials were expecting stragglers.

Stephen Sonnier left for Katrina, but not this time.

"I'll never leave again. Just being away, worrying about it last time? I'd have rather been here," Sonnier said as he helped his friend Bill Espy use an electric drill to fasten metal hurricane panels over the window of his reconstructed flower shop.

Sonnier had just marked the third anniversary of Katrina on Friday by placing flowers on a makeshift memorial to a woman named Vera who was struck by a car after the storm. Her body lay unattended for days before neighbors built a makeshift brick tomb around her. Pictures of that grave with its spray-painted epitaph: "Here lies Vera, God Help Us!" became one of the symbols of the post-Katrina mayhem.

Many residents said the early stage of 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.

Arriving in Arkansas
Some began arriving Saturday in Arkansas, where the National Guard prepared to shelter thousands for weeks. At least 15,000 people sought refuge in the inland state in 2005, following Katrina and Rita.

Video: When, where will Gustav make U.S. landfall? Meanwhile, as many as 500 critical-care patients were being airlifted from hospitals along the Gulf Coast to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, a spokesman said. The patients were being taken to about 20 hospitals around North Texas.

Traffic late Saturday night was stop and go on Interstate 10, heading west into Houston from the Louisiana border, as Texas prepared to house up to 45,000 evacuees, even though that state's eastern stretches were within the range of where Gustav could make landfall.

The airport in New Orleans had run out of jet fuel, according to NBC News, as people rushed to leave the city. Commercial flights will stop plying at 6 p.m. central time.

In Beaumont, not far from where Hurricane Rita roared ashore as a Category 3 in 2005, residents were boarding up homes and leaving. In neighboring Orange County, officials were inundated "by thousands" of people calling to register for evacuation assistance, a county spokeswoman said.

To the east, Louisiana residents were checking into hotels along Alabama's coast. Mitch and Laura Tucker of Mandeville brought along their dog, Roux, whom they saved during Katrina.

"We don't know what we'll be going back to," he said.

Spooked by predictions that Hurricane Gustav could grow into a Category 5 monster, an estimated 1 million people fled the Gulf Coast Saturday — even before the official order came for New Orleans residents to get out of the way of a storm taking dead aim at Louisiana.

Mayor Ray Nagin gave the mandatory order late Saturday, but all day 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 evacuation of New Orleans becomes mandatory at 8 a.m. Sunday along the vulnerable west bank of the Mississippi River, and at noon on the east bank. Nagin called Gustav the "mother of all storms" and told residents to "get out of town. This is not the one to play with."

"This is the real deal, this is not a test," Nagin said as he issued the order, warning residents that staying would be "one of the biggest mistakes you could make in your life." He emphasized that the city will not offer emergency services to anyone who chooses to stay behind.

Nagin did not immediately order a curfew, which would allow officials to arrest residents if they are not on their property.

Landfall Monday?
Gustav had already killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean, and if current forecasts hold up, it would make landfall Monday afternoon somewhere between East Texas and western Mississippi.

Forecasters warned it was 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. All commercial flights out of the New Orleans airport were to halt at 6 p.m. CDT Sunday.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said they were surprised at how quickly Gustav gained strength as it slammed into Cuba's tobacco-growing western tip. 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 mph or more — by Sunday.

"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.

Levee building on New Orleans' west bank was incomplete, Nagin said. A storm surge of 15 to 20 feet would pour through canals and flood the neighborhood and neighboring Jefferson Parish, he said.

Nagin estimated that about half the population had left and admitted officials were worried that some people would try to stay.

Even before the evacuation order, hotels closed, and the airport prepared to follow suit.

Loading up the buses
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff planned to travel to Louisiana on Sunday to observe preparations. Also, likely GOP presidential nominee John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, are traveling to Mississippi on Sunday to check on people getting prepared.

As part of the evacuation plan New Orleans developed after 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 main transit terminal. From there, they were boarding motor coaches bound for shelters in north Louisiana. The city expects to move out about 30,000 such residents by Sunday.

"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. "You will be on your own," Nagin said.

'Guard soldiers are everywhere'
NBC correspondent Don Teague reported that local police were deployed around the city and that "National Guard soldiers are everywhere" in the downtown area. "Considering the lack of real security during the height of the Katrina chaos, it seems officials are hoping to instill some that the situation here will remain under control," he said.

About 1,500 National Guard troops were in the region, and soldiers were expected to help augment about 1,400 New Orleans police officers in helping patrol and secure the city.

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. "I don't think the hurricane will break them, but I don't want someone breaking in."

Many residents said the early stage of 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 would fall through the cracks.

About two dozen Hispanic men gathered under oak trees near Claiborne Avenue. They were wary of boarding any bus, even though a city spokesman said no identity papers would be required.

"The problem is," said Pictor Soto, 44, of Peru, "there will be immigration people there and we're all undocumented."

Video: Is FEMA prepared? Farther west, where Gustav appeared more likely to make landfall, Guard troops were also being sent to Lake Charles.

The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and part of Texas, meaning hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours.

Two East Texas counties also issued mandatory evacuation orders, and authorities in Mississippi, also battered by Katrina, began evacuating the mentally ill and aged from facilities along the coast.

National Guard soldiers on Mississippi's coast were going door-to-door to alert thousands of families in FEMA trailers and cottages that they should be prepared to evacuate Sunday.

In Alabama, shelters were opened and 3,000 National Guard personnel assembled to help evacuees from Mississippi and Louisiana.

"If we don't get the wind and rain, we stand ready to help them," Gov. Bob Riley said.  

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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