Georges heads for New Orleans

INTERSTATE ROUTE 10, the only main road out of the city of New Orleans, was clogged with traffic yesterday as fearful residents sought to flee the city before the onslaught of Hurricane Georges.

More than a million people have been told to leave their homes and head for safer areas in the states of Alabama and Louisiana.

The hurricane, which has already wreaked havoc across much of the Caribbean and the Florida Keys, was gathering force last night and set to reach land before midday today.

Reports suggested it could land anywhere between Mobile, on the coast in Alabama, and New Orleans, further west along the coast in neighbouring Mississippi. In Port Sulphur, Louisiana, near where the storm was expected to make landfall, the sheriff's deputy said: "I hope everybody who needed to get out is gone. It's blowing really hard but no rain yet. I wish we were gone too."

Heavy rain and strong winds were already reported from Louisiana with the arrival of the outer squalls of the hurricane.

The atmosphere in the city was tense, though there was no sign of panic, as people bought stocks of bottled water and other staples, boarded up their homes and took to the road.

On Saturday night, those determined to sit it out continued to party in the city's French Quarter, but many of the most famous clubs and restaurants were closing down and boarding up.

The voluntary or compulsory evacuation orders covers a wide swathe of the US Gulf coast from Louisiana in the west to the Florida Panhandle in the east.

But forecasters at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami said that the likely focus of the storm, barring any last minute change of direction, was New Orleans. Hotels in towns and cities far enough inland to be regarded as safe from the storm warned they already had no more room for tardy evacuees.

Although New Orleans itself is protected by more than 100 levees, flooding was seen as the greatest danger in this low-lying area that is only just recovering from the ravages of a tropical storm two weeks ago. The damage caused then prompted President Bill Clinton to declare the worst affected districts a disaster area, allowing them to qualify for federal aid. But New Orleans itself was not affected severely enough to qualify.

New Orleans' situation - with the shoreline on two sides and lagoons on the third - leaves it vulnerable to storm surges of the 17ft-plus magnitude which it is feared Hurricane Georges may bring. A force 2 hurricane when it hit the Caribbean and southern Florida at the end of last week, Georges was described yesterday as a "strong category 2" which could fast develop into a category 3 - with winds of more than 120mph - before making landfall.

Initially, Georges had been forecast to reach land along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts. The beach resorts there were cleared on Saturday, and the casinos at Biloxi were closed. The shoreline, usually bustling with boats and people, was eerily deserted, even as the sun continued to shine.

It was late on Saturday that the hurricane made a slight move to the west. It was this move that made New Orleans the most likely target. Conceding that they were ill-prepared for a hurricane, the local authorities ordered mandatory evacuation of about a million people.

The mayor, Marc Morial, declared a state of emergency, a prerequisite for putting in place a curfew and for calling in federal assistance.

The most recent forecast was that the centre of the hurricane could reach the Mississippi delta by yesterday evening, although its progress towards land was slowing even as its windspeeds were picking up.