Hurricane Gustav lashed the Louisiana coast on Monday with pounding rain and heavy winds, posing the biggest threat to the New Orleans area since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Gustav was expected to make landfall before midday as a category-three hurricane, but its outer bands were already hitting the Gulf coast early on Monday.
Nearly two million people fled the Gulf coast in one of the biggest evacuations in United States history. More than 11-million residents in five US states were threatened by the fast-moving storm.
Oil companies shut down nearly all production in the energy-rich Gulf of Mexico, a region that normally pumps a quarter of US oil output and 15% of its natural gas.
But Gustav failed to draw as much power as once feared as it rolled across warm Gulf of Mexico waters. Forecasters said it was unlikely to grow stronger now and would begin to weaken as it moves inland.
US crude oil futures slipped to below $115 a barrel on Monday morning as fears of major damage to oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico eased. Prices had hit more than $118 per barrel in a special trading session on Sunday.
Gustav also took centre stage in US politics as Republicans prepared to open their convention on Monday to nominate presidential candidate John McCain with a bare-bones programme stripped of the usual pomp and circumstance.
The eye of the storm was on track to hit west of New Orleans, sparing the city a direct hit from the worst of its gusting winds.
But the US National Hurricane Centre said Gustav was still likely toss up ”an extremely dangerous storm surge” of up to 4,3m that could test the holding power of rebuilt levees that failed during Hurricane Katrina.
By Sunday night, the streets of New Orleans were ghostly quiet after about 95% of the city’s population responded to desperate calls by officials for a sweeping evacuation.
Hurricane Katrina brought a 8,5m storm surge that burst levees on August 29 2005 and flooded about 80% of New Orleans, which sits partly below sea level. The city degenerated into chaos as stranded storm victims waited days for government rescue and law and order collapsed.
An estimated 1,9-million people fled coastal areas as Hurricane Gustav drew closer, state officials said.
Only 10 000 people were believed to have stayed behind in New Orleans. Police and several thousand national guard troops patrolled the empty city, sometimes in convoys of Humvees, as a curfew went into effect in a bid to prevent looting.
On Monday morning, Gustav was packing maximum sustained winds of 185km/h, making it a category-three storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
It was expected to swamp parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas with up to 30cm of rain and 50cm in some small areas. Isolated tornadoes were also possible.
Gustav’s approach had stirred uneasy comparisons to Katrina, the most costly hurricane in US history, which killed about 1 500 people and caused over $80-billion in damage almost exactly three years earlier.
President George Bush, who was criticiced for the slow relief efforts after Katrina, cancelled his appearance at the Republican convention as scheduled instead a visit to Texas on Monday to oversee emergency response effort.
McCain went to the Gulf on Sunday to survey preparations and ordered political speeches cancelled on Monday for his nominating convention, apparently concerned that television images of a choreographed Republican celebration while the storm was hitting Louisiana would be seen as out of touch.
Long lines of cars and buses streamed out of New Orleans on Sunday after its mayor, Ray Nagin, ordered an evacuation of the city of 239 000 and told residents, ”This is still a big, ugly storm, still strong and I encourage everyone to leave.”
New Orleans resident Vanessa Jones (50) said she had planned to stay but changed her mind after watching the news all night. ”I can’t take a chance because so many people died in Katrina,” she said as she prepared to board a bus headed to an unknown destination.
The government lined up trains and hundreds of buses to evacuate 30 000 people who could not leave on their own and Nagin said 15 000 had been removed from the city, including hundreds in wheelchairs.
Flights from New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities were cancelled on Monday as the storm bore down on the region.
Residents boarded up the windows of their shops and homes before leaving town, while others hunkered down as ”hold-outs” with stockpiled food, water and shotguns to ward off looters.
”I saw quite a bit of looting last time with Katrina, even 30 minutes after the winds had stopped,” said construction contractor Norwood Thornton, who opted to stay behind to protect his home in New Orleans’ historic Garden District.
In its run through the Caribbean, Gustav earlier killed at least 86 people in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica.
The US Coast Guard reported the first storm-related death in Florida on Sunday, where a man fell overboard as his craft ran into heavy waves.
Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed it three weeks later, wrecked more than 100 Gulf oil platforms. – Reuters