NEW ORLEANS - With a monster hurricane aimed straight at Louisiana's Gulf Coast and memories of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster seared into their minds, hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists began fleeing the New Orleans region yesterday, leaving a boarded-up and eerily empty city behind.
Out in the Gulf of Mexico less than two days away was Hurricane Gustav, fluctuating between a major Category 4 and 5 storm even before it passed over the gulf's warm fueling waters. It continued its inexorable march toward a landfall predicted for tomorrow somewhere west of New Orleans, where Mayor Ray Nagin gave a mandatory evacuation order late yesterday.
"This is the real deal, not a test," Nagin said as he issued the order, warning residents that staying would be "one of the biggest mistakes of your life." He emphasized that the city will not offer emergency services to anyone who chooses to stay behind.
The storm killed more than 80 people as it churned through the Caribbean, and hurricane watches were posted from Galveston, Texas, to the Florida Panhandle, reflecting forecasters' uncertainty over whether the storm might veer east or west at the last minute.
President Bush, who was widely criticized for the federal government's delayed response to Hurricane Katrina, called state leaders in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas to promise them "the full support" of his administration.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, mindful of the catastrophic damage that could result wherever Gustav makes landfall, said he was considering whether to curtail or suspend the Republican National Convention starting tomorrow in St. Paul, Minn., where he is scheduled to be formally nominated as the party's presidential candidate.
His Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, expressed concern about the looming storm as well, adding that, "Hopefully, we've learned from [Hurricane Katrina's] tragedy."
All the signs in New Orleans yesterday suggested that city, state and federal officials were determined not to repeat the mistakes of Katrina, when tens of thousands of infirm and impoverished city residents were left behind to fend for themselves when the city's protective ring of levees ruptured.
More than 1,800 people died and at least 100,000 homes were destroyed when floodwaters inundated 80 percent of the city, triggering a weeklong frenzy of looting and chaos.
The evacuation of New Orleans becomes mandatory at 8 a.m. today along the vulnerable west bank of the Mississippi River, and at noon on the east bank. Nagin called Gustav the storm of the century and told residents to "get your butts out of New Orleans now."
Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a "contraflow" directive effective at 4 a.m. today, meaning that all major highways would run only outbound from coastal areas to facilitate evacuation traffic.
Officials said that at least 1,500 New Orleans police officers, augmented by another 1,500 National Guard troops, were patrolling the city against looters - double the law enforcement presence after Katrina.
"We will be able to pretty much lock down this city," said New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley. "People should be confident we will be able to handle this very, very well. We can't promise nothing will happen, but it certainly will be a tremendous force of law enforcement and military here."
At the city's central train and bus station yesterday - in the shadow of the New Orleans Superdome where tens of thousands of storm victims were stranded without food or water for nearly a week after Katrina - evacuees bused in from staging points across the city were swiftly processed and loaded onto outbound buses and trains headed for shelters in Memphis and upstate Louisiana.
Each evacuee received a colored wristband indicating any special medical or assistance needs. There were designated lines for the elderly, those with wheelchairs and families with young children, as well as ample food and water.
There was even a staging area for family pets - countless numbers perished during Katrina - which were being caged and loaded into air-conditioned semi-trailers destined for the same evacuation cities as their owners so they could be quickly reunited.
"Nobody had to tell me twice to get out this time," said Tasha Smith, 23, as she clutched her 1-year-old son Michael in her arms while waiting with other family members to board an evacuation bus. "We had to get rescued from our roof after Katrina. I wasn't about to go through anything like that again."
City officials pointedly refused to set up any "shelters of last resort" inside the city, to avoid a repeat of the hellish post-Katrina scenes at the Superdome and the downtown Convention Center.
Any of the city's estimated 310,000 residents who ignore orders to leave accept "all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones," announced Jerry Sneed, the city's emergency preparedness director.
Nagin, who drew popular scorn for failing to help the city's poorest residents get out before Katrina, said he was pleased with yesterday's process.
"This is night and day from Katrina," Nagin said in an interview. "Katrina was some hard-earned experience. Now we're putting that experience to work."
There was only one glitch in yesterday's process: An Internet-based registration system for the evacuees, designed to synchronize their identification information to barcodes on their wristbands, was overwhelmed and quickly crashed.
But officials armed with scanners and laptops rapidly improvised around that problem by boarding the buses and trains with the evacuees to record their information en route and then upload it wirelessly from the road.
Much of the city, its population already depleted since Katrina, looked empty yesterday, suggesting that most residents were heeding official warnings and getting out well in advance of the storm.
Many evacuees said they knew that the city's network of levees is still only partially repaired - and even if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes the work on schedule in 2011, the system will still not be able to withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane.
In the city's Lower Ninth Ward, which was wiped out when Katrina smashed a levee along the Industrial Canal, a handful of families who had rebuilt their homes could be seen loading up their cars with suitcases and coolers, on their way out.
Despite the official assurances that their property would be protected, many New Orleans business owners stung by the lawless aftermath of Katrina were taking no chances. ATMs along Canal Street sported fresh signs saying they would remain empty until after the storm passes. Workers who had been using plywood sheets to rebuild houses and businesses abruptly shifted their efforts to boarding up windows and doors as protection against looters.
"It's not the wind or the water I'm worried about," said Tyler Malejko as he nailed thick wooden planks to the window frames of his wife's upscale kitchen cabinetry store in the Mid-City neighborhood. "The police couldn't protect anybody the last time, and I have no confidence things will be any different now."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Impact U.S. grants after Katrina have had little effect. PG 22