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95% of south Louisiana flees

Times Staff Writers

Hurricane Gustav neared the Gulf Coast early today with the first bands of its destructive rage, winds slightly weakened but still potent enough to spark a massive all-day exodus that all but emptied New Orleans and clogged Southern highways with nearly 2 million evacuees.

Spread 440 miles across the Gulf of Mexico, the storm had degraded slightly from the Category 4 status reached over the weekend, weather forecasters said.

Officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav would reach landfall in the daylight hours today as a Category 3 storm, with gusts of up to 127 miles per hour and an “extremely dangerous” storm surge that could exceed 14 feet over normal tide levels.

But even in its slightly reduced state, with top winds of 115 mph, Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans with its eastern flank, the more volatile side fortified by fierce gusts and the threat of tornadoes.

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“This is still a big, ugly storm,” Mayor C. Ray Nagin said.

He had warned earlier that Gustav was “the storm of the century,” outstripping even Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans three years ago, causing at least 1,800 deaths and vast flooding and devastation. Even as Gustav appeared to weaken, Nagin said that the storm was “still strong, and I strongly urge everyone to leave.”

Most did, and many evacuees were already on the road soon after dawn. Their vehicles briefly overwhelmed highways that had been converted under a “contra-flow” system into one-way arteries designed to speed the evacuation from Louisiana east through Mississippi and Alabama.

Public safety officials responded quickly, reversing traffic patterns and shutting down tunnel construction in Mobile that had snarled traffic moving east. By late in the day, evacuees were moving slowly but steadily, packed into cars and pickups brimming with relatives, luggage and a lifetime of possessions.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said late Sunday that nearly 95% of southern Louisana’s 2 million residents had departed. “That would make this the largest evacuation in Louisiana’s history,” he said.

Among the last to join the caravans was Alysia Chapoy, 30, who hurriedly packed her family’s SUV Sunday morning.

Chapoy and her husband, Michael, both work in New Orleans restaurants and were unable to leave until the last minute. After hefting a load of boxes into the vehicle, they crammed in their two small children, three dogs and two cats. They planned to drive north to Destrehan, where they hoped to ride out the storm in Alysia Chapoy’s mother’s house before moving on.

“From there it’s maybe a shelter somewhere,” she said uneasily.

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By midafternoon, rain was already pelting Gulfport, Miss., a coastal city scoured by Katrina in 2005 but now a prime destination for evacuees. After trying in vain for a room in hotels as far north as Hattiesburg, Louisiana refugees Mary Pierre and her son, Demarius, staggered into a Best Western, desperate for a “yes.”

The desk clerk turned them down, but housekeeper Tajuana Cox volunteered her king-size bed for the night. “That is so wonderful,” the exhausted Pierre exclaimed, wrapping Cox in a grateful hug.

By day’s end, New Orleans’ population of 239,000 had shrunk to little more than 10,000, Jindal said. He voiced hope that the number would be further reduced as officials intensified their pleas to leave.

Police vans with loudspeakers made their rounds through nightfall, patrolling abandoned neighborhoods and issuing mandatory evacuation orders to holdouts in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

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Most of the city’s populated neighborhoods were already abandoned, and only small groups of the elderly and infirm lined up for the last buses and trains out of town.

Jerome Dilliole, 72, showed up with a small shoulder bag at the city’s train station just after 11 a.m., less than an hour before the city said it would shut down the evacuation program. Dilliole said he wanted to stay because his wife is seriously ill at a downtown hospital. But the hospital would not let him stay, he said, and “I can’t just wander the streets.”

Dilliole said it pained him to leave his wife, but he was afraid to stay in his house, in the city’s 7th Ward, which suffered heavy flooding in 2005.

“Uh-uh -- no way I’m staying,” Dilliole said. “The hurricane’s coming, and it’s going to chase me all the way out of town.”

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Jindal echoed Nagin’s stern call for citizens to evacuate and said that 7,000 National Guard troops had been deployed in the state -- 1,500 of them in New Orleans -- to aid in disaster preparations and prepare for rescue and public safety needs after Gustav strikes. An additional 16,000 Guardsmen are due to arrive in the next day, Jindal said.

“Don’t take a chance of riding out this storm,” Jindal warned residents.

In Washington, President Bush announced that he would not attend the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., which now appears threatened with a reduced lineup as it prepares to nominate John McCain and his newly announced running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney scrapped their plans to address the convention, and McCain said that most opening-day activities would be canceled and added that he was unsure how the rest of the week would unfold.

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“This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans,” McCain said. Republican officials raised the possibility of turning their convention into fundraising appeals for dispossessed Gulf Coast residents, and McCain’s rival, Barack Obama, hinted at similar plans.

“I think we can activate an e-mail list of a couple of million people who want to give back,” Obama said.

Bush emerged from a morning meeting with senior Federal Emergency Management Agency officials insisting that the federal government was prepared for Gustav this time -- in contrast to its much-criticized performance in the aftermath of Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005.

“There’s a lot of preparations that have gone in anticipation of this storm,” Bush said. As he urged Gulf Coast residents to understand the “serious risk” posed by Gustav, Bush also said that he had been informed by the Army Corps of Engineers that Louisiana’s levees “are stronger than they’ve ever been.”

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But Nagin said bluntly today that he was concerned about whether the city’s internal levees could ward off Gustav’s powerful storm surge from the Lower 9th Ward and other low-lying areas. Nagin also warned that gaps in the Harvey Canal could endanger the city’s West Bank.

“The storm surge could go over those levees or topple them,” Nagin said.

The Army Corps was singled out for criticism after Katrina for failing to properly design and maintain the city’s levee system. A massive federal upgrading of New Orleans’ levee walls is underway but is not scheduled to be completed until 2011. Nagin held out hope that the repairs already made by the Corps would hold up under Gustav’s storm surge.

The city’s huge pumps can pump out an inch of water per hour for the first two hours of a major storm, and half an inch an hour after that, the mayor said.

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“I think we’ll be OK,” he said.

Nagin said that a dusk-to-dawn curfew would go into effect Sunday night and warned anyone who considered remaining not to expect any city services once Gustav barrels inland. Most neighborhoods, he said, were cooperating.

Scores of buses provided by city officials had evacuated nearly 15,000 residents before noon, Nagin said.

The mayor, who took heat in 2005 for his own erratic performance in preparing and evacuating the city, warned holdouts that looting would not be tolerated. Anyone arrested for looting would be transported directly to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

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“You’ll go directly to the big house,” Nagin said. “God bless you if you go there.”

In the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, looters took advantage of a lack of police and Guardsmen to break into stores and homes. Some police officers fled their posts.

“We assure you that’s not going to happen again,” Police Chief W.J. Riley said of the looting and AWOL officers. “We are better equipped and a lot more knowledgeable this time.”

Nagin said the only “reports of resistance” were in the Uptown area, the city’s highest ground, where holdouts lingered. The area is home to a mix of rich and poor, white and black, and showed flickers of defiance even as the rest of the city returned to its post-Katrina ghost-town state overnight.

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Landscape architect Louis Vitrano, 47, parked his car in a grocery lot that is the highest point in the neighborhood, then hustled back to his house on Neron Place, a side street lined with mature oaks and turn-of-the-century homes.

Vitrano’s place is 103 years old, a handsome, two-story cottage that was filled with two feet of water during Katrina. Vitrano had evacuated then, and while he was gone, the flood ruined everything.

This time, he said, he was staying to run the generator to pump the water out. “I’m going to solve a whole lot of problems by staying,” he said.

As it emptied, New Orleans outwardly looked little different than the half-finished recovery project it has been since Katrina’s onslaught. In some cases, the freshly-painted old houses were boarded up with the same plywood used during the 2005 storm.

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A trip down a major thoroughfare like St. Charles or Claiborne Avenue was a study in absence. Police squad cars and fire trucks were largely the only vehicles. On side streets, diehards sawed plywood for storm windows, drank beer or just watched the eerily calm sky that preceded the billowing storm clouds far to the south.

In the French Quarter, most bars and restaurants were shuttered. Mr. Chubby’s Cheesesteak had a line of hungry patrons watching cooks grill meat and onions dripping with melted cheese.

Owner Eric Cohen, a Philadelphia native, said he and his staff planned to sleep at the restaurant and stay open every day, whatever the storm does. He said he had ample supplies of beef, bread, onions and beer.

“Bring it on,” he said of Gustav. “I’m not going anywhere.”

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david.zucchino@latimes.com

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this report.

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On latimes.com

Fleeing Gustav

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For more images from the massive evacuation of the Gulf Coast, visit our website at latimes.com/gustav.


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