NEW ORLEANS — Calling the hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast "the mother of all storms," Mayor C. Ray Nagin on Saturday night declared a mandatory evacuation of this city's more than 230,000 residents and tourists.
"You need to be getting your butts moving out of New Orleans now," Nagin said of Hurricane Gustav, a storm the National Hurricane Center said could be a Category 5 -- the top intensity -- when it enters the Gulf of Mexico today.
Gustav, watched closely all week by Louisianians still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, gained frightening strength Saturday.
The storm, which has killed about 80 people in the Caribbean, hit the mainland of western Cuba in a tobacco farming region Saturday packing 140-mph winds, forcing more than 300,000 people to evacuate and causing widespread damage.
On Isla de la Juventud, an island of 87,000 residents south of the mainland, an official reported "many" injuries and said nearly all the island's roads were washed out.
The National Hurricane Center called it an "extremely dangerous" storm.
"That puts a different light on our evacuations, and hopefully that will send a very clear message to the people in the Gulf Coast to really pay attention," said R. David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "There's no reason for anyone to stay in New Orleans to ride out this storm. We can't stop the damage from happening. What we can do is move people out of harm's way."
President Bush spoke with governors and federal officials along the coast in Gustav's path and sought to assure them that Washington would be ready to help. The federal response to Katrina three years ago was sharply criticized.
"He told each of the governors that federal officials were monitoring Hurricane Gustav very closely," spokesman Scott Stanzel said. "President Bush pledged the full support of the federal government."
Dana Perino, White House press secretary, cautioned that that did not mean "everything will be totally smooth."
"We're facing what could be a very strong hurricane, possibly one of the largest and strongest to hit America since records began," she said.
Asked whether Bush would forgo his plans for an opening-night speech Monday at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, Perino said any decision probably would not be made until Monday.
The storm is likely to make landfall just west of New Orleans, with its eastern flank battering the west side of the city. Nagin said that area had some of the most vulnerable flood protection systems.
This area west of the Mississippi River, known to locals as the West Bank, escaped widespread flood damage during Katrina.
Officials expressed concern for the rest of the metro area as well, noting that extensive planned improvements to levees and flood walls throughout the city's intricate web of canals and waterways had not yet been completed.
When asked if the storm could put the entire city under water, Nagin said, "This storm has that potential."
The city has not designated any shelters to be used by people who stay in the city through the storm. Staying in the city, Nagin said, would be "one of the biggest mistakes you could make in your life."
At an afternoon news conference, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal reiterated the damage that Gustav could visit on the city.
"This storm," he said, "could be as bad as it gets."
These declarations late in the day were dispiriting to a city and a region that has been working hard to demonstrate that it has learned from its mistakes from Katrina -- from residents who realized they should not have stayed through the 2005 storm, to government officials embarrassed by their inadequate response to the disaster that unfolded. Ultimately, more than 1,800 people died as a result of that storm.
In downtown New Orleans, thousands of residents lined up in the morning heat, toting backpacks and plastic bags of food as they waited to board buses and trains to shelters in northern Louisiana and neighboring states.
These were some of the city's most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the impoverished, the sick. Three years ago, many of them rode out Hurricane Katrina at home, and ended up trapped in flooded homes or in the squalor of the Louisiana Superdome and the nearby convention center.
Now many of them were moving on, to shelters as far away as Memphis.
They didn't know where they would sleep Saturday night, but many of them said they did not mind.
This time, they knew it was time to go.
"I don't care where they send me -- as long as it's away from all that water," said Earlene Antoine, 67, who was trapped in her flooded home in downtown New Orleans in 2005. "I can handle the hurricane -- I just can't handle the water."
In lieu of the Superdome, Katrina's "shelter of last resort," a network of buses and trains was designed to haul away everyone willing to leave -- the first test of a disaster plan fully overhauled since Katrina.