New Orleans (AFP) Sept 1, 2008
Storm force winds and rain from approaching Hurricane Gustav began lashing the US Gulf coast early Monday, soon after nearly two million people fled the state of Louisiana ahead of the killer storm.
The exodus is being called the largest evacuation in US history, and officials have also shut down the area's vital oil production facilities.
Reports of power outages in eastern portions of New Orleans began after wind and rain began hitting the city late Sunday.
"The outer edge of the storm is already over the Mississippi Delta and going in toward New Orleans now, according to radar," center meteorologist Patricia Wallace told AFP.
However, Gustav's eye was not expected to make official landfall until early afternoon on Monday.
At 0300 GMT, the eye was located 220 miles (360 kilometers) southeast of New Orleans and moving northwest at 16 miles (26 kilometers) an hour.
However, the hurricane had a wide swing, with tropical storm force winds extending as far as 220 miles (350 kilometers) outward, the center said in its advisory.
Still a category three hurricane, Gustav packed sustained winds of 115 miles (185 kilometers) per hour.
Forecasters predicted a slight strengthening before landfall, but Gustav was expected to stay at category three for the rest of its journey across of the Gulf of Mexico.
"This is a serious storm," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said as Gustav neared the shore Sunday.
People in the state capitol of Baton Rouge and other inland areas have been warned to watch for storm-spawned tornados.
Gustav is also wreaking havoc with the US political calendar, forcing US President George W. Bush to cancel plans to appear at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. The US leader said Sunday that he would instead travel to Texas to monitor the storm.
The Republican who would succeed Bush in the White House, presumed presidential nominee John McCain, drastically scaled back the program for the first day of the convention Monday.
McCain said all convention activities scheduled for Monday will be suspended "except for those absolutely necessary."
"I hope and pray we will be able to resume some of our normal operations as quickly as possible," he told reporters via a video link from St. Louis, after returning from a tour of relief preparations in Mississippi.
Military and civilian disaster relief operations were in full swing with the memory of the catastrophic hit on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina almost exactly three years ago, and the local and federal governments' botched response.
Katrina made landfall near New Orleans on August 29, 2005, smashing poorly-built levees surrounding the city and causing massive floods that destroyed tens of thousands of homes and killed nearly 1,800.
Louisiana officials said there some 750 National Guard troops already on the ground in New Orleans if needed for rescue operations.
Mayor Ray Nagin on Sunday ordered a sundown curfew in the city and vowed to throw looters into prison.
He told local television that the city had become a "ghost town" after a massive evacuation campaign, and that only about 10,000 residents remained after thousands fled the wrath of Gustav.
Some of those who left said they felt reassured.
"The mayor assured us our property will be safe," Wilson Patterson, 48, said as he prepared to board a bus with wheelchair-bound 84-year-old Earline Martin at the combination bus and train depot know as The Gate.
"We don't want to get caught up in the Katrina craziness," he said, recalling the lawlessness that swept New Orleans in 2005.
Jindal said search and rescue efforts are already in place.
"We will begin search-and-rescue operations as soon as we safely can. That would be when winds are below 140 miles per hour," he said, which probably will occur "late Monday."
"We've got ... boots on the ground, eyes on the ground. So before that, even before we can get into the air, before we can get boats on the water, we do have people on the ground to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to save every single life."
Meanwhile, Jindal told reporters there were unconfirmed reports that three critically ill patients died while being transported to safer ground.
"They had to weigh the risk between sheltering in place and evacuating and made the decision they thought was best for their patients," the governor said.
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Gulf Coast braces, flees as deadly Gustav takes aim at US
New Orleans, Louisiana (AFP) Aug 31, 2008
More than a million people fled Louisiana as killer Hurricane Gustav on Sunday roared toward New Orleans, a fragile US coastal city still deeply scarred by the devastating 2005 Katrina storm.
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