The mandatory evacuation of the city ahead of Hurricane Gustav began Sunday morning, with residents on the city's vulnerable West Bank told to start leaving first.
By noon, residents in the rest of the city were supposed to be out of their homes and heading to safety.
City officials were nervously watching the storm's track. Gustav roared into the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico on Sunday after destroying homes and roads in Cuba. It picked up speed as it moved northwest at 17 mph with winds of 115 mph with higher gusts, according to the National Hurricane Center's 2 p.m. EDT update. Some re-intensification is forecast during the next 12 to 24 hours, and Gustav could regain Category Four strength later today or tonight.
Hurricane-force winds extended 50 miles from the storm's center, which is about 270 miles southeast of the Mississippi River's mouth.
It was projected to make landfall Monday, and could bring a storm surge of up to 20 feet to the coast and rainfall totals of up to 15 inches.
Mayor Ray Nagin called Gustav "the mother of all storms," and says anyone ignoring calls to leave would be on their own.
In addition to more than 80 deaths attributed to the storm in the Caribbean, a man was swept overboard from a motor vessel 80 miles west of Key West while the boat was passing through heavy weather associated with Gustav.
The man was found dead at approximately 10:50 a.m.
"This Is Still A Big, Ugly Storm"
At a press conference this afternoon, Nagin said the last buses will leave the city by 3 p.m., and that a dusk-to-dawn curfew would be in place for anyone who chose to remain. "Anybody who is on the street after the curfew kicks in will be arrested," Nagin said.
Although according to the mayor there have been only a handful of arrests so far, "We will have zero tolerance for looters. You will go directly to Angola prison, and God bless you when you go there."
Nagin did not minimize the danger posed by Gustav: "Since we are on the wrong side of the storm, we should start to see tornado threats," he said. "This is still a big, ugly storm. It's still strong and I urge everyone to leave."
Nagin expressed some hope that since Gustav has shown to be a fast-moving storm, it might make landfall before gaining even more strength over the Gulf, and would not linger long to dump even more rain on the area.
Calls Go Out In Texas, Ala., Mississippi
Mandatory evacuations have also started in parts of southeast Texas, and are set to continue through midday across a three-county region stretching to the Louisiana state line, with the last mandatory evacuation starting at noon in Beaumont.
In Mississippi, Jackson County officials said there would be a mandatory evacuation for all residents living in low-lying areas, mobile homes, cottages and FEMA travel trailers beginning 8 a.m. Sunday.
The Mississippi Department of Mental Health removed dozens of patients from the South Mississippi Regional Medical Center in Long Beach. Other community living facilities were also evacuated.
In Alabama, Gov. Bob Riley issued a mandatory evacuation order for some coastal parts of Mobile and Baldwin counties in response to Hurricane Gustav.
The evacuation order, effective at 7 a.m. Sunday, covers areas south of Interstate 10 in the southernmost part of Mobile County and on the west side of Mobile Bay, east of Dauphin Island Parkway.
In Baldwin County, the evacuation order includes Fort Morgan Peninsula and Plash Island.
The order did not immediately include Orange Beach where thousands of tourists, including some Louisiana evacuees, have rooms. Tourism officials estimate some 40,000 visitors are on the Alabama coast for Labor Day.
"We basically have the rest of Sunday to complete the evacuation of the coast of Louisiana as well as evacuation activities in Texas and Mississippi," Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said this morning.
Remarking on reports of coastal residents choosing to stand guard over their property, Chertoff said, "That strikes me as exceptionally foolish. People should heed the instructions to evacuate and protect their own lives."
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Gustav weakened slightly over Cuba and again over the Gulf of Mexico but was expected to regain strength as it moves over warm waters toward the U.S. coast, possibly becoming a top-scale Category 5 hurricane later on Sunday.
Even after slowing to Category 3 status before sunrise Sunday, Gustav packed top winds at 120 mph at 8:00 a.m. The storm was centered 375 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Forecasters upgraded a hurricane watch to a warning for over 500 miles of U.S. Gulf coast from Cameron, Louisiana, near the Texas border to the Alabama-Florida state line, meaning hurricane conditions are expected there within 24 hours.
Forecasters said Gustav was just short of Category 5 strength when it made landfall Saturday on mainland Cuba near the community of Los Palacios in Pinar del Rio.
Bush, Cheney Cancel Trips To GOP Convention
Concerns over the hurricane led the White House to announce Sunday that neither President Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney will travel to the Republican National Convention in Minnesota.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said alternate plans for the convention are being prepared.
President Bush will be heading to Texas on Monday to meet emergency workers and evacuees, in Austin and San Antonio.
Mr. Bush called New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin this morning, letting him know that he was "checking in and getting ready to go through this with him again."
Nagin told the president that though the forecast was not good, he was pleased with the support he was getting from the federal government and FEMA.
Mr. Bush got an update on the storm, which could make landfall along the Gulf Coast as early as Monday, during a visit to Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters. At a briefing, Mr. Bush sat next to agency director David Paulison and watched a live briefing on a large video screen on Gustav's track and strength.
His Homeland Security chief warned that Gustav could prove more challenging than Katrina and the nation's disaster response coordinator worried about New Orleans' fragile levees.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Paulison have visited the region to monitor developments; Chertoff was returning there Sunday. Equipment and people were put in position and safe shelters readied, with cots, blankets and hygiene kits en route.
Chertoff, who planned to remain in Baton Rouge, La., for the duration of the storm, said coordination among response officials was much better than it was during Katrina.
But he acknowledged some shortcomings so far, including buses that had yet to arrive at evacuation points and last-minute decisions by hospitals to move critically ill patients out of the storm's way.
With New Orleans' mandatory evacuation getting under way, internal government briefing documents obtained by The Associated Press on Sunday said Louisiana was short 750 buses needed for evacuation. Chertoff said school buses were expected to fill in for the contract buses that had not appeared and that the Canadian military was lending planes to help evacuate hospital patients.
"This is probably the case with almost any emergency, which is as soon as you make contact with the enemy, the plan starts to suffer some alterations," Chertoff told reporters at Andrews Air Force base before his departure. He said reports that some Louisiana residents apparently have decided to ride that storm out in their homes "strikes me as exceptionally foolish."
Gustav is "going to be, in some ways, more challenging than Katrina," Chertoff said.
Also in advance of the storm, security firm Blackwater Worldwide, in a notice released on Friday, called for submissions by "qualified security personnel" for possible deployment into areas affected by Hurricane Gustav. Applicants, the notice states, must be U.S. citizens. Contract length is to be determined.
Blackwater gained controversy over its deployment of private security personnel in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, in addition to its work for the State Department in Iraq.
There is no indication that Blackwater personnel would actually be contracted by the Department of Homeland Security. National Guardsmen and New Orleans police are already in the city and will be patrolling during curfew.