By Jerry Hart and Brian K. Sullivan
Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Gustav strengthened to an ``extremely dangerous'' Category 4 hurricane as residents of New Orleans fled a storm that threatens to strike the U.S. Gulf Coast harder than Katrina did three years ago.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami upgraded the storm after sustained winds exceeded 145 miles (233 kilometers) an hour as it approached Cuba's western tip. The hurricane could be upgraded to Category 5 by tomorrow and reach Louisiana as early as Sept. 1, according to the center.
New Orleans evacuated 2,500 people by bus and train today of 20,000 who applied for assistance, Mayor Ray Nagin said. Outbound traffic clogged highways around the city, while convoys of school buses and ambulances rolled into town.
``My wife is panicked,'' 40-year-old Kurt Wells said as he packed his family's two cars in front of their St. Roch Avenue home in New Orleans. ``She says she doesn't want to die here.''
Oil companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc are evacuating workers and shutting offshore platforms and refineries along the coast. Energy producers have idled 77 percent of natural-gas production and 37 percent of oil output in the Gulf, the U.S. government said.
The state will make highways one way leaving the area at 4 a.m. tomorrow, Governor Bobby Jindal said. State and city officials are on the verge of issuing mandatory evacuation orders.
``This could be as bad as it gets,'' Jindal said at a news conference.
People who don't leave must stay on their property, Nagin said. ``Get out,'' the mayor said. ``And the next time you hear from us, it is going to be `Get the heck out.'''
He said once the city is evacuated, 1,500 New Orleans police officers and as many as 2,000 National Guard troops will guard against looting and crime.
Paul Bruno, 57, owner of the Downtown Fitness Center, said he would leave for Baton Rouge, the state capital, 60 miles northwest up Interstate 10.
``We're much more cautious,'' Bruno said as he waited for his wife to pick him up on North Peters Street in the French Quarter. ``The hurricane isn't even in the Gulf of Mexico and the town is a ghost town.''
Storm winds have increased to 150 miles (240 kilometers) an hour, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. The eye of the storm was about 620 miles southeast of the U.S. Gulf Coast and moving northwest at about 15 mph at 5 p.m. Miami time.
``Gustav is forecast to remain a major hurricane through landfall along the northern Gulf Coast,'' the center said.
Deaths in Caribbean
The center predicted rainfall of two inches to four inches and possible tornadoes in the Florida Keys and southern Florida. A hurricane watch was issued for the Gulf Coast from High Island, Texas, east to Florida.
Gustav caused the deaths of 51 people in Haiti, Agence France-Presse reported, and at least 11 in Jamaica. In the Dominican Republic, eight people died in a landslide, the country's Center of Emergency Operations said on its Web site.
Katrina struck Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005, as a Category 3 hurricane with winds near 130 mph, flooding New Orleans. It killed 1,800 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage, the most destruction of any U.S. storm.
That hurricane ``imprinted in our minds the worst of our fears,'' said Yadonna West, a jazz singer who will go to Dallas with her husband Joshua until Gustav passes. ``People are frightened. I know I am.''
Businesses were boarding up to protect against the wind. Harrah's New Orleans Casino and Hotel closed and area public schools suspended classes next week.
`Like the Plague'
On Canal Street, usually thick with tourists, few pedestrians were out. ``It's starting to look like the plague here,'' a passing bicyclist yelled.
Peaches Shirani, owner of Peaches Records on North Peters Street, said her store is usually ``crazy busy'' on Saturday afternoon. Today there was no one in the store.
About 1,020 New Orleans evacuees have been taken by train to Memphis, and three busloads of city residents have arrived at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison told reporters on a conference call. Nagin's office said the airport will stop accepting incoming flights at 6 p.m. local time.
Texas has agreed to accept 45,000 people fleeing by car and 10,000 who are being flown to the state, he said.
``Between the buses, the trains and the aircraft, there is no reason, no reason, for anyone in the city of New Orleans to ride out this storm,'' Paulison said. ``We don't want anybody to stay in the city.''
Gustav is forecast to make landfall around the same time as the Republican Party opens its convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Senator John McCain said the convention might be delayed if Gustav caused a disaster on the Gulf Coast, according to an interview he gave to ``Fox News Sunday'' set to air tomorrow. In an excerpt on Fox's Web site, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said ``it just wouldn't be appropriate.''
President George W. Bush may skip the convention because of the storm, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a conference call with reporters today. The Bush administration was criticized three years ago for its handling of the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina.
``We continue to track the path of the storm and there is no scheduling change to speak of yet,'' Perino said. Gustav may be ``one of the largest and strongest'' storms to hit the U.S. since records have been kept, she said.
State of Emergency
The president has declared a state of emergency for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and ordered federal aid. Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana issued state emergency and disaster declarations and alerted National Guard units.
The American Red Cross opened its shelters today, said Joe Becker, senior vice president of disaster services. The Washington-based organization is preparing 600 shelters to house 143,000 people, he said. About 600,000 meals a day are being stockpiled, he said.
FEMA won't be housing people in trailers after the storm, Paulison said. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the agency came under criticism from lawmakers for using trailers that had high levels of formaldehyde, a cancer-causing substance. FEMA brought food and blankets to the region earlier this week and has been working with state and local officials.
Tulane Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Robert Lynch said the hospital in New Orleans will retain about 325 doctors, nurses and staff during the storm. He said it rebuilt generators after Katrina and could function for a week on its own.
The Army Corps of Engineers stockpiled sandbags to repair any breaches in the New Orleans levees, said Bill Irwin, the Corps's FEMA liaison. Katrina's damage to the ring of barriers surrounding the below-sea-level city in 2005 caused flooding of 80 percent of the area and forced 250,000 residents to flee.
The Corps has worked to strengthen the levees since Katrina. Work isn't scheduled to be complete until 2011.
``I'm really concerned that storm surge with heavy wave action on top will move across southeastern Louisiana,'' said Jim Rouiller, a meteorologist with Planalytics Inc. in Wayne, Pennsylvania. ``The untested levee system in New Orleans will be overwhelmed and may fail. This storm will be more dangerous than Katrina.''
The hurricane center also is monitoring Tropical Storm Hanna, which was about 260 miles east of Grand Turk and moving west at 5 mph as of 5 p.m. Miami time. Hanna had winds near 50 mph and should strengthen in the next day or two, the center said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jerry Hart in Miami at firstname.lastname@example.org; Brian K. Sullivan in New Orleans at email@example.com.
Last Updated: August 30, 2008 19:22 EDT