New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city on Saturday, directing residents still recovering from the devastation left behind three years ago from Hurricane Katrina to flee from the approaching Hurricane Gustav.
Nagin said an informal evacuation that has taken place for days becomes mandatory at 8 a.m. Sunday on the city's west bank. It becomes mandatory on the east bank at noon.
Forecasters said Gustav was just short of becoming a top-scale Category 5 hurricane as it powered its way toward Cuba. Authorities evacuated at least 300,000 people across the country, including western communities, cities near Havana and on the Isla de la Juventud, or Isle of Youth, an island of 87,000 people south of mainland Cuba.
By late Saturday night, Gustav's eye had crossed over Cuba into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Gustav had weakened slightly, but was expected to regain strength on Sunday, possibly becoming a Category 5 hurricane with winds above 155 mph as it spins toward the U.S. coast, where it was expected to make landfall on Monday.
Gustav, ripped through the Isle of Youth, causing extensive damage, according to Ana Isa Delgado, head of Civil Defense on the island. Delgado said gusts of wind tossed parked cars and buses into the air leaving only twisted wrecks, ripped doors from their hinges, and carried off roofs and water tanks, reports CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum
Even areas considered secure were severely damaged and streets are virtually blocked with downed trees and rubbish. There was flooding in some low-lying areas but not in the main cities. Several people have been hospitalized with storm related injuries but no one is critical and there are no reports of deaths.
The hurricane was projected to plow into the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico at full force Sunday, and make landfall along the U.S. coast anywhere from Texas to Mississippi as early as Monday afternoon, reports The Early Show weather anchor Dave Price. A hurricane watch was issued from Texas east to Florida, an area that includes New Orleans, which Hurricane Katrina devastated in 2005.
More than a million Americans took buses, trains, planes and cars as they streamed out of New Orleans and other coastal cities, where Katrina killed about 1,600 people.
Gustav already has killed 81 people by triggering floods and landslides in other Caribbean nations.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Gustav had sustained winds of 150 mph - with higher gusts - as the heart of the storm began hitting Cuba's outlying island province of Isla de Juventud, where officials cut power to many areas. (Visit CBSEyeMobile's Hurricane Center for more information on Gustav.)
In the Florida Keys, tropical storm warnings were posted in Monroe County from west of the Seven Mile Bridge westward to the Dry Tortugas.
Forecasters said there is a better-than-even chance that New Orleans will get slammed by the storm. That raised the likelihood people will have to flee, and the city suggested a full-scale mandatory evacuation call could come as soon as Sunday.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is scheduled to be in Louisiana Sunday morning to observe preparations in anticipation of the hurricane.
A day after marking the third anniversary of Katrina, thousands waited in line on a hot New Orleans day to board buses at the Union Passenger Terminal, reports CBS News correspondent Hari Sreenivasan, hoping to avoid a similar tragedy.
"You won't see any buses stranded this time," said Nagin. "You won't see people stranded in the Superdome. Every step that we've gone through this process, we've adjusted and we have a better plan now."
Evacuation plans will even include planes on standby Sunday, when New Orleans airport shuts down at 6 p.m, reports Sreenivasan.
Cars packed with clothes, boxes and pet carriers drove north among heavy traffic on Interstate 55, a major route out of the city. Gas stations around the city hummed. And nursing homes and hospitals began sending patients farther inland.
"I'm getting out of here. I can't take another hurricane," said Ramona Summers, 59, whose house flooded during Hurricane Katrina three years ago. She hurried to help friends gather their belongings. Her car was already packed for Gonzales, nearly 60 miles away to the west of New Orleans.
Joseph Jones Jr., 61, wore a towel over his head to block the sun. He'd been in line at the bus terminal for over two hours, but wasn't complaining. During Katrina, he had been stranded on a highway overpass.
"I don't like it. Going someplace you don't know, people you don't know," Jones said. "And then when you come back, is your house going to be OK?"
At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Nagin said buses and trains have already started moving residents out of the city, and urged those who are disabled, elderly or need medical help in leaving the area to register for help in accessing transportation to transit points.
Authorities hoped to move 30,000 people. So far 20,000 people have registered for transportation, so many that pre-registration crashed the system, according to the mayor.
As of 1 p.m. this afternoon, according to Mayor Nagin, 1,100-1,200 people had been evacuated on 22 buses, most going to Shreveport or Alexandria. Another 1,500 people had boarded trains to Memphis.
"Once the storm gets into the Gulf, I think that's when we're going to see another surge (of people seeking to evacuate)," he said.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order closing schools in central and north Louisiana Tuesday and Wednesday to free up shelter space and bus resources for local residents and residents in south Louisiana
In Mississippi, Governor Haley Barbour said he has agreed with Louisiana officials to open all four lanes of Mississippi interstates 55 and 59 to evacuees from Louisiana.
Barbour says the contraflow will take effect at 4 a.m. Sunday and run at least until midnight. He says hours could be extended if traffic remains heavy.
Earlier Saturday, Nagin told all tourists in the city it was time to leave.
"We need to get them out of the way so we can deal with our senior citizens and those who need our assistance," he added.
With tourism being the economic engine of the city, employing 69,000 people and generating $5 billion a year in spending, the evacuation of tourists carries a heavy economic toll on the city, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston.
Police and firefighters were set to go street-to-street with bull horns over the weekend to help direct people where to go. Unlike Hurricane Katrina, there will be no shelter of last resort in the Superdome. The doors there will be locked.
Those among New Orleans' estimated 310,000 to 340,000 residents who ignore orders to leave accept "all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones," the city's emergency preparedness director, Jerry Sneed, has warned.
Though he strongly urged residents to leave, Nagin said a curfew would be imposed for those who stayed to watch over their property and possessions. "If you decide to stay, you will be required to stay inside of your property," he said.
He also said there would be double the number of police officers and National Guard prepared to patrol the streets once the storm hits. Fifteen Guardsmen are reported already in New Orleans.
"Emotionally can we handle it? I think there is a lot of fragileness about our psyche right now in this city," Nagin said. "I wouldn't be honest with you if I told you something different.
"It's going to be a tough but New Orleaneans are very resilient and they are very tough and we'll get through this."