New Orleans braces itself for category five Hurricane Gustav

Strengthening storm heads for a city still recovering from the devastation of Katrina exactly three years ago

New Orleans was gripped by an eerily familiar sense of panic yesterday, as Hurricane Gustav, heading for America's Gulf Coast, was upgraded to a category five – the highest possible storm rating, indicating windspeeds of at least 155mph.

Afraid of a repeat of the Hurricane Katrina disaster – a category three when it hit land almost exactly three years ago – thousands got in their cars and clogged the freeways out of the city, while the elderly and sick were being bussed out ahead of an official mandatory evacuation order, expected at 8am local time today.

Meanwhile, Gustav was about to batter western Cuba, prompting 250,000 people to leave low-lying areas in the path of the storm. The Cuban authorities ordered many of Havana's crumbling buildings to be evacuated, for fear they would be unable to weather the storm, and told other residents to find a shelter and barricade themselves in.

In the historic French Quarter of New Orleans, the odd jazz band played on, but most of the bar-lined streets were almost empty. Tourists, who had descended on the city to celebrate this weekend's Labor Day holiday, encountered police with loudhailers directing them on to suddenly crowded freeways.

The New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, ordered all visitors to leave the city by nightfall yesterday, and instructed hotels to make guests from out of town check out at first light.

The Central Business District was deserted except for soldiers from the National Guard ordered into the city to check that banks and other potential targets for looters had been securely boarded up.

Gustav has already killed 78 people in the Caribbean, and is now likely to make landfall in the US in the early hours of Tuesday morning. If it hits New Orleans head on, it could produce a surge in sea levels of up to 20ft, engulfing large areas of the coastal city.

President George Bush declared a state of emergency on Friday night, and sent more than 5,000 troops into Louisiana to maintain order during the mandatory evacuation. All flights out of New Orleans were booked up.

A fleet of 700 buses began helping 30,000 residents – many of them elderly and without transport – to leave town. Trains were on hand to take some evacuees to Memphis, while long queues formed at petrol stations.

Although Gustav remains days away, the authorities are taking no chances. "We don't want folks worrying about their property. It is time for people to be worried about their personal safety," said Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana.

The administration's failure to respond quickly enough to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was largely blamed for the subsequent devastation, which caused nearly 1,800 deaths and $80m (£44m) in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in US history.

"If people choose to defy a mandatory evacuation order, we want them to be aware that they are putting themselves in a risky situation," said a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). "We want them to be aware that, once this storm strikes, emergency services may not be in a position to help them."

Much of New Orleans has still not recovered from Katrina, and large areas of the city remain derelict. The last unidentified victims were finally laid to rest only on Friday, during a truncated day of events to commemorate the third anniversary of the storm.

Survivors are anxious to avoid repeating the mistakes that saw large numbers of them remain behind when the last hurricane struck.

Earlier yesterday, Tyler Fernandez, in the still-scarred parish of St Bernard, said: "They say it's now a category five storm, and from what I now know, category five means get the hell out. The way I see it, this storm is God's way of reminding us of the power of Mother Nature."

While most people were boarding up windows and hitting the road, some veterans of Katrina were reluctant to leave their properties, in case of a repetition of the widespread looting that followed the disaster. Even if Gustav has petered out by the time it arrives, they fear it may take days or even weeks to get back to their homes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power