Continuing Coverage: Hurricane Gustav approaching Gulf Coast - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

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Continuing Coverage: Hurricane Gustav approaching Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS - Local roads saw heavy traffic in one direction Sunday, away from New Orleans, as Hurricane Gustav sped up to a pace that could see it make landfall somewhere along the northern Gulf Coast by Monday morning.

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In New Orleans, police and National Guard troops were on the streets, preparing to patrol neighborhoods for stragglers ignoring a mandatory evacuation order and to ward off looting.

Mayor Ray Nagin imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew that was to begin Sunday at sunset, while the last bus carrying residents to safety was to leave at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Nagin 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."


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.

Gustav had weakened to a Category 3 hurricane while crossing western Cuba on Saturday, but was expected to strengthen in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It had also picked up speed on leaving Cuba and was moving northwest at 17 mph with winds of 115 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center's 2 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 270 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.

16-foot storm surge possible
Gustav could bring a storm surge of up to 16 feet to the coast and rainfall totals of up to 20 inches. Hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles from the storm's center, and tropical storm-force winds 200 miles.

The comparisons to Katrina come easily.

At times Katrina, one of the five deadliest U.S. storms, stretched its tropical storm-force winds out about 200 miles from its center. Hurricane force winds extended about 90 miles.

Both Gustav and Katrina intensified rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico, but Katrina intensified after making landfall in Florida while Gustav hit Cuba first. Forecasters say Gustav also is moving more quickly than Katrina.

"(Gustav) is a large system similar to Katrina. The difference, at this moment, is that it's asymmetric. It doesn't have a uniform coverage like Katrina," said Chris Sisko, a meteorologist for the National Hurricane Center.

Having earlier killed 81 people in the Caribbean, Gustav slammed Cuba's tobacco-growing western tip on Saturday before moving into the Gulf of Mexico.

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

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley issued a mandatory evacuation order Sunday for some coastal areas of Mobile and Baldwin counties.

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 headed to Mississippi on Sunday to survey preparations.

'Storm of the century'

An estimated 1 million people already have fled coastal areas in advance of the storm.

Nagin used stark language to urge residents to get out of the city, calling Gustav the "storm of the century."

"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.

Cuba evacuates 300,000
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.

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, but no reports of deaths. 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.

Cuba's top meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said the storm brought hurricane-force winds to much of the western part of Havana, where power was knocked out as winds blasted sheets of rain sideways though the streets and whipped angry waves against the famed seaside Malecon boulevard.

Felled tree branches and large chunks of muddy earth littered roads that were largely deserted overnight.

In tourist-friendly Old Havana, heavy winds and rain battered crumbling historic buildings. There were no immediate reports of major damage, however.

Tourist Lidia Morral of Barcelona, Spain, said Gustav forced officials to close beaches the couple wanted to visit earlier this week in Santiago, on the island's eastern tip. The storm also prevented them from catching a ferry from Havana to the Isla de la Juventud on Saturday.

"It's been following us all over Cuba, ruining our vacation," said Morral, who was in line at a travel agency, trying to make other plans. "They have closed everything, hotels, restaurants, bars, museums. There's not much to do but wait."

Back in New Orleans, many residents said the early stage of the evacuation was more orderly than during Katrina, although a plan to electronically log and track evacuees with a bar code system failed and was aborted to keep the evacuation buses moving. Officials said information on evacuees would be taken when they reached their destinations.

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.

Meanwhile, as many as 500 critical-care patients were being airlifted from hospitals along the Gulf Coast to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, a spokesman said. The patients were being taken to about 20 hospitals around North Texas.

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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