Gulf Coast Braces for Arrival of Hurricane Gustav

As New Orleans prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Gustav, the streets of the French Quarter retain little of their usual revelry. Most residents have cleared out. The raucous Southern Decadence gay parade has been canceled. An occasional tourist trudges past lugging his rolling suitcases, heading for a bus that will whisk him out of town. One of the few places that are still hopping is the Oceana Grill, which is doing brisk business in crab cakes, barbequed shrimp and booze. "We won't close," says general manager Moe Bader, who estimates they've got enough provisions to last a week. "The police allow it because it gives them a place to eat as well." The place stayed open during Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and its clientele survived just fine. "Gustav doesn't scare us," says Bader.

Yet Gustav is a lethal force. Though it had weakened to a category 3 storm by midday Sunday, with winds near 115 miles per hour, it could still climb back up to category 4 status, with winds exceeding 130 miles per hour, by the time it makes landfall on the Gulf Coast, which is expected to happen Monday. On Sunday afternoon, Gustav remained about 270 miles southeast of the Mississippi River's mouth and was barreling toward central Louisiana, west of New Orleans, at a steady clip of 17 miles per hour. Apart from wind damage, the region will likely face a storm surge of 12 to 16 feet, which could overwhelm levees and floodgates. There's also a threat of tornadoes spawned by Gustav's turbulence. "This is still a big, ugly storm," said New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin at a press conference on Sunday.

City officials ordered a mandatory evacuation order Saturday night. A "contraflow" plan went into effect, converting all traffic lanes into outbound arteries. The city deployed a fleet of buses and trains to move out residents without vehicles. By the time of the press conference, Nagin said, some 15,000 residents had been evacuated. Many passed through Union Passenger Terminal, where residents queued up throughout the day clutching babies sweltering in the heat and duffel bags stuffed with belongings. Some snapped up bibles brought by Rev. Wesley Taylor, chief of the city's health department and a member of Compassion in Action Church. Within half an hour, all 500 of the holy books he brought were gone.

Officials were especially mindful of the sick and the elderly, who suffered so awfully during Katrina. At the Union terminal, Avis Gray, regional administrator for the state's Department of Health and Hospitals, oversaw their evacuation. Those who were capable of flying were bused to the airport, while the more fragile were loaded onto ambulances destined for Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and other medical facilities. A team of doctors and paramedics stood by to deal with any sudden medical emergencies. At Ochsner Baptist Medical Center, not far from Tulane University's campus, officials called in essential personnel and took on some of the most critical patients from other area hospitals.

Some residents agonized over the safety of their pets. The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was standing by at Union terminal to load dogs, cats and birds into animal kennels for trips to out-of-town shelters. As might be expected, the operation, which had transported more than 350 animals by Sunday morning, didn't always run smoothly. Cheryl Sykes struggled with her 180-pound bull mastiff, Huei Duei Dobbs. "I'm not leaving without my dog," Sykes told Col. Jerry Sneed, Louisiana's homeland security chief. Yet the dog wouldn't fit into any of the kennels, and bus operators wouldn't allow him into any of the coaches. Finally, an SPCA volunteer came to their aid, offering Sykes and the massive hound a ride in the cab of his truck.

Elsewhere in the city, some residents decided to ride out the storm. Among them was Charles Davis, an art dealer who lives in the city's Uptown neighborhood and stayed through Katrina. "I just don't have faith in the city government to protect my house from fire and flood and theft," he says. "I didn't last time, and I don't this time." He plans to hunker down in his basement, tucked up against the fireplace. "Down there I can monitor any rising water and hear footfalls [on the first floor] if anyone tries to come in." One of his chief concerns is looters, and he has armed himself to defend against them, if need be.

During his press conference, Nagin directed a special message at would-be looters. "Looters will go directly to jail," he said. "You will not get a pass this time." And those caught won't be shipped to a mere parish jail; they'll be sent to the state's notorious Angola Prison. "I want to make sure every potential looter understands that," said Nagin. "You will go directly to Angola Prison, and God bless you when you get there."

Though most eyes are on New Orleans, residents throughout the Gulf Coast region are scrambling to prepare for Gustav. Over in Port Arthur, Texas, which could get a direct hit from the hurricane, authorities also ordered a mandatory evacuation. The city was battered by Hurricane Rita in 2005, and this time around, few residents were willing to risk riding out the storm. "Trust me, around here, Rita is still fresh on everyone's minds," said Mike Free, a battalion chief with the Port Arthur Fire Department. On Saturday and Sunday, cars inched out of harm's way in bumper-to-bumper traffic along Interstate 10, as roadside marquees flashed the message "Hurricane season is here, keep your gas tanks full." Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced that travelers should take advantage of the more than 200 comfort stations providing water and restrooms that run all the way up to the Oklahoma border.

One Port Arthur resident determined to flee was Sidney Romero, a painter and freelance minister. In the wee hours of Sunday, he slung a backpack stuffed with clean clothes over his shoulder and pedaled his mountain bike to the Port Arthur civic center, where he hoped to land a seat on a bus. During Rita, he waited until the last minute and wound up stranded until he was finally rescued by a stranger in a pickup truck. "Last time, I almost got left behind," said Romero. "You can't run from your problems. But I ain't staying here!"

Gulf Coast Braces for Arrival of Hurricane Gustav | News