The Big Easy was eerily silent Sunday after hundreds of thousands of people boarded buses, cars and trains to flee what the mayor called "the mother of all storms.'' Gustav, a Category 3 hurricane due to make landfall today, most likely will pass west of New Orleans as it moves through Louisiana, forecasters said.
With memories of Hurricane Katrina still fresh and predictions that a 12- to 14-foot storm surge could breech New Orleans' levees, residents were taking no chances.
"I was never thinking about staying," said Warniesha Berry, who lined up for a bus Sunday morning with five children in tow. Gunshots rang through her West Bank neighborhood three years ago when Katrina left New Orleans in chaos. "We're not going to go through that again."
Nearly 2-million people from Texas to Alabama fled the Gulf Coast ahead of Gustav on Sunday, authorities said. Interstate highways across the region were bumper to bumper in one of the largest evacuations in American history.
Painfully aware of the failings that led to more than 1,600 deaths and horrific suffering after Katrina, officials were on high alert, with President Bush describing the preparations and warning residents to flee the storm's path.
Gustav barreled toward the central Louisiana coast Sunday afternoon, and it was expected to strengthen before it hit as early as this morning. Officials predicted devastation for towns in its path, and possible destruction of parts of New Orleans still recovering from Katrina.
Traffic flow was switched so all highway lanes led out of New Orleans. Buses collected an estimated 18,000 people from 17 pickup points across town, shuttling them to the Amtrak station downtown, and then to shelters outside the city.
Mayor Ray Nagin estimated that more than 95 percent of New Orleans' residents had left by Sunday. Most of the city appeared abandoned, with boarded-up strip malls, antique stores and homes.
Nagin, who imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew, warned looters that they would be arrested and housed in prison, unlike the scene for days after Katrina, when lawlessness ruled the streets.
"Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time,'' Nagin said.
Bush said he would skip the Republican National Convention today to monitor Gustav. The president, criticized for reacting slowly to Katrina's devastation, will travel to Texas today to meet with evacuees and will move into Louisiana as soon as conditions permit, he said.
The storm claimed its first three Louisiana victims, at least indirectly. Gov. Bobby Jindal said there were reports that three critical-care patients had died during the evacuation of hospitals throughout New Orleans. He said one of the patients had a do-not-resuscitate order.
Gustav killed at least 94 people on its path through the Caribbean, and damaged or destroyed 86,000 homes in Cuba. Its strength diminished Sunday, down to sustained winds of 115 miles per hour. But hurricane force winds extended 70 miles from the center and some intensification was predicted.
It was likely to stay a Category 3 storm when it made landfall west of New Orleans. Rain started falling in the city before sunset, and storm-force winds had reached the southeastern tip of the state.
In Mississippi, the National Guard went door to door trying to roust residents who were still living in trailers following Katrina. In coastal Texas hundreds of vulnerable residents were flown inland, and thousands of others left by car.
As of 11 p.m., Gustav was about 220 miles southeast of New Orleans and moving northwest at nearly 16 miles per hour.
When word of a mandatory evacuation in New Orleans came, Ann and Roy Phelps knew they would go, they just didn't know where. For more than 20 years, their family has lived facing the 17th Street Canal, the first levee to rupture after Katrina.
They lost their home in Katrina and now rent next door. They hope to rebuild on their vacant lot, Ann Phelps said, but "if this gets water, though, we might have to move."
Across town, in the 7th Ward just outside the French Quarter, 71-year-old Larry Denny spray-painted the plywood he attached to the windows of his 150-year-old home on Esplanade Avenue.
"Beach Front Property For Sale CHEEP"
Denny and wife, Sharlotte, 55, stayed through Katrina, but this time, the couple hitched a trailer to their truck to head out of town. "If we take a sinker this time, this is a dead city," Denny said. "We've been hanging on by our fingertips."
About 72 percent of New Orleans households have returned since Katrina, but about 34 percent of properties are considered blighted, more than any other major U.S. city.
Charles Washington, 51, remained at home in the 9th Ward three years ago when Katrina sent flood waters barreling through his home. It wasn't until a woman was attacked at a nearby shelter, Washington said, that he decided they had to get out. He drove a bus and took hundreds to the Superdome and the Convention Center.
And where did he get that bus?
"Well, I commandeered the bus," he said.
Washington is leaving but fears for his home. The last time, thugs despoiled what the floods didn't. Washington said someone broke into his home, drank his liquor, ate his food, left syringes on his floor — even wore his underwear. "They did Bourbon Street during Carnival on a good day," he said. "I hope the National Guard catches them this time."
By midday Sunday, about 10,000 people were left in the city, the mayor said, out of a population of 250,000 to 300,000. Up to 95 percent of the residents of coastal Louisiana had fled, state police said.
Information from the New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.