Police: Nearly 1.9 million flee Louisiana

As Gustav nears, New Orleans becomes a ghost town
8/31/2008 NEW ORLEANS The Big Easy increasingly took on the eeriness of a ghost town as thousands heeded a mandatory evacuation order, and police and National Guard troops clamped down on the city to prevent the kind of lawlessness and chaos that followed Katrina three years ago.

"Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time," Mayor Ray Nagin said. "You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You will go directly to the Big House."

Most were taking him seriously. The state changed traffic flow so all highway lanes led out of New Orleans, 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.

Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson said Sunday he was especially pleased at how few people remain in New Orleans, which he compared to a ghost town.  Roughly 1.9 million people have evacuated coastal Louisiana. Thousands more have fled from coastal Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.

Nagin has used stark language to get his message across to residents, calling Gustav the "mother of all storms." Emergency officials have repeatedly warned that those who stay are on their own, and there will be no shelter of refuge like in Katrina, when thousands waited helplessly for rescue in a squalid Superdome.

Though his threats were dire, it was unmistakable that Gustav posed a major threat to partially rebuilt New Orleans. The storm has already killed more than 80 people on its path through the Caribbean. And there are fears about how much the levees, which breached during Katrina, can take.

Large areas of southeast Louisiana, including sections in the greater New Orleans area, that are protected by levees face being flooding by several feet of water, according to Gustav surge models. Gustav appears likely to overwhelm the system of levees west of the city that have for decades been under-funded and neglected even as the population has grown.

The Army Corps of Engineers has stockpiled steel pilings, sandbags and metal baskets filled with sand in the event that emergency repairs are needed to fill in breaches. Heavy duty helicopters capable of dropping sandbags are on standby.

Barreling toward the Gulf Coast with frightening strength and size, Gustav was a Category 3 hurricane with winds extending out 65 miles and tropical storm force winds as far as 220 miles. Category 3 storms have winds between 111 mph and 130 mph; Category 4 storms can have winds as fierce as 155 mph.

The storm, which could make landfall Monday morning, could bring a storm surge of up to 14 feet to the coast and rainfall totals of up to 20 inches.

A Mid-Michigan native was one of the thousands of people trying to decide what to do in the wake of Gustav.  Gary Wirick moved to New Orleans a few years ago in search of work.  He survived Katrina and Gustav has brought a familiar set of fears.

Wirick planned on waiting until the last possible minute to leave Louisiana but even he was gone by Sunday, bolting for drier land in Alabama.

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