Hurricane Gustav downgraded to category 2 storm - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Hurricane Gustav downgraded to category 2 storm

NEW ORLEANS - Instead of getting a direct hit from a Category-3 hurricane, New Orleans has received just a glancing blow from a Category-2 storm. City officials say they expect the partially-rebuilt levees will hold, even though some water is splashing over the top of the Industrial Canal's floodwall.

Forecasters had feared the storm would arrive as a devastating Category 4 with much more powerful winds as it approached the vulnerable city.

The Big Easy and other Louisiana coastal areas took on the eeriness of ghost towns Sunday as most residents heeded a mandatory evacuation order, and police and National Guard troops clamped down to prevent the kind of lawlessness and chaos that followed Katrina three years ago.

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Col. Mike Edmondson, chief of the Louisiana State Police, said he believed that 1.9 million people, more than 90 percent of the coastal population, had fled - the largest evacuation in state history.

Large areas of southeast Louisiana, including sections in the greater New Orleans area, that are protected by levees face being flooded.


The Spokane Red Cross is encouraging people who have loved ones in the Gulf Coast to call and tell them about the website http://disastersafe.redcross.org

At this website people can register themselves as "safe and well." If the storm hits as predicted communications may go down making it difficult to get in touch with family and friends. People without internet access can call 1-800-RED-CROSS.

The Army Corps of Engineers 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.

The exodus took place as Gustav sped up, and its hurricane-force winds are set to hit New Orleans and other coastal areas Monday morning.

The only good pieces of news were that Gustav, now a Category 3 storm with 115 mph winds, was no longer expected to strengthen back to a Category 4 and that it appeared to be shifting a bit to the west and farther away from the more populated areas of New Orleans and its suburbs.

Still, a shift west threatens low-lying communities like Houma and Morgan City, which do not have strong levee systems.

Clouds were already rolling in along the Gulf Coast by midday Sunday, and the skies darkened.

In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew starting at sunset, while the last bus carrying residents to safety left Sunday afternoon.

Nagin also warned that looting - one of the chronic problems after Hurricane Katrina - would not be tolerated. "Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time," he said. "You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You will go directly to the Big House."

Most residents took him seriously. 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.

"I got scared at the last minute," said Ollie Hilson, 54, of Marrero, a town on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Waiting for a bus, she had a single plastic grocery bag with a change of clothes and a few personal belongings, and waited with her two nieces and their four children, all under the age of 3. "I was worried about the kids. We just couldn't stay."

Tornadoes possible along coast
Gustav had weakened to a Category 3 hurricane while crossing western Cuba on Saturday. But it picked up speed and was moving northwest at 18 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center's 5 p.m. ET advisory. The center also warned that Gustav could spawn tornadoes along the coast.

Some hospitals changed plans once Gustav sped up and decided to evacuate patients they had planned to shelter there, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters Sunday before leaving for a command post in Louisiana.

"A number of the hospitals that originally planned to shelter in place have now decided they are going to actually try to evacuate their critically ill and medical needs patients," Chertoff said. "As a consequence, we've had to increase the tempo of our air flights into New Orleans in order to make sure that we can accommodate the flow. We're going to be watching this very carefully today."

Gustav's eye was about 215 miles southeast of the Mississippi River's mouth. The storm was expected to slow down as it neared land, but even so the estimated time of landfall is now much earlier than previously predicted.

14-foot storm surge possible
Gustav could bring a storm surge of up to 14 feet to the coast and rainfall totals of up to 20 inches. Katrina was a Category 3 when its 25-foot storm surge burst New Orleans' levees on Aug. 29, 2005. Some levees have been repaired but others are still in worse shape than before Katrina.

Gustav's hurricane-force winds extended 65 miles from the storm's center, and tropical storm-force winds 220 miles.

Gustav slammed Cuba's tobacco-growing western tip on Saturday before moving into the Gulf of Mexico. It earlier killed 94 people by triggering floods and landslides in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Jamaica on Sunday raised Gustav's death toll there to 10 from seven, and Haiti upped its count from 66 to 76.

A hurricane warning was issued for more than 500 miles of Gulf Coast from just east of High Island, Texas, to the Alabama-Florida state line, meaning hurricane conditions are expected there within 24 hours.

Residents in flood-prone southeast Texas fled, too. Sabine Pass a port city most recently battered three years ago by Hurricane Rita, was among the first communities ordered to leave. Port Arthur, Texas, a refinery town of about 57,000 also badly damaged during Rita, was virtually abandoned.

President Bush, whose administration was accused of a slow and botched response to Katrina's chaos, said he will not attend this week's Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Bush instead announced plans to travel to Texas Monday to oversee emergency efforts.

And likely Republican presidential nominee John McCain visited Mississippi on Sunday to survey preparations.

'Real deal, not a test'
Nagin used stark language to urge residents to get out of the city.

"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."

The mandatory evacuation of the city's west bank, where levee improvements remain incomplete, began 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.

On Bourbon Street, where the party seemingly never ends, only stragglers toting luggage were sporadically seen on the sidewalks Sunday morning.

Forecasters said Gustav was just short of Category 5 strength when it made landfall Saturday on mainland Cuba near the community of Los Palacios in Pinar del Rio - a region that produces much of the tobacco used to make the nation's famed cigars.

At least 300,000 Cubans were evacuated from Gustav's path as screaming 140 mph winds toppled telephone poles and fruit trees, shattered windows and tore off the tin roofs of homes. No deaths, however, were reported there.

Cuban civil defense chief Ana Isla said there were "many people injured" on Isla de la Juventud, an island of 87,000 people south of the mainland. She said nearly all the island's roads were washed out and some regions were heavily flooded.

"It's been very difficult here," she said on state television.

Gun sales strong
Back in New Orleans, Katrina's legacy of looting also led to a jump in gun sales.

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."

Some locals planned to ride out the storm.

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 a friend 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.

Arkansas, Texas take some evacuees
Some bus evacuees 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.

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.

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.

Hanna also threatens
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Hanna was projected to near the Turks and Caicos Islands late Sunday or on Monday, then curl through the Bahamas by early next week before possibly threatening Cuba.

As it spun over open waters, Hanna strengthened slightly and had sustained winds near 55 mph early Sunday. The hurricane center warned that it could kick up dangerous rip currents along parts of the southeastern U.S. coast.

The U.S. State Department urged Americans to be aware of the risks caused by Hanna to people traveling to the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It urged U.S. citizens lacking safe shelter to consider leaving while flights are still available.

(www.msnbc.com)

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