NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Gustav neared the Gulf Coast early today with the first bands of its destructive rage, winds slightly weakened but still potent enough to spark a massive all-day exodus that all but emptied New Orleans and clogged Southern highways with nearly 2 million evacuees.
Spread 440 miles across the Gulf of Mexico, the storm had degraded slightly from the Category 4 status reached over the weekend, weather forecasters said.
Officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav would reach landfall in the daylight hours today as a Category 3 storm, with gusts of up to 127 miles per hour and an "extremely dangerous" storm surge that could exceed 14 feet over normal tide levels.
But even in its slightly reduced state, with top winds of 115 mph, Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans with its eastern flank, the more volatile side fortified by fierce gusts and the threat of tornadoes.
"This is still a big, ugly storm," Mayor C. Ray Nagin said.
He had warned earlier that Gustav was "the storm of the century," outstripping even Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans three years ago, causing at least 1,800 deaths and vast flooding and devastation. Even as Gustav appeared to weaken, Nagin said that the storm was "still strong, and I strongly urge everyone to leave."
Most did, and many evacuees were already on the road soon after dawn. Their vehicles briefly overwhelmed highways that had been converted under a "contra-flow" system into one-way arteries designed to speed the evacuation from Louisiana east through Mississippi and Alabama.
Public safety officials responded quickly, reversing traffic patterns and shutting down tunnel construction in Mobile that had snarled traffic moving east. By late in the day, evacuees were moving slowly but steadily, packed into cars and pickups brimming with relatives, luggage and a lifetime of possessions.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said late Sunday that nearly 95% of southern Louisana's 2 million residents had departed. "That would make this the largest evacuation in Louisiana's history," he said.
Among the last to join the caravans was Alysia Chapoy, 30, who hurriedly packed her family's SUV Sunday morning.
Chapoy and her husband, Michael, both work in New Orleans restaurants and were unable to leave until the last minute. After hefting a load of boxes into the vehicle, they crammed in their two small children, three dogs and two cats. They planned to drive north to Destrehan, where they hoped to ride out the storm in Alysia Chapoy's mother's house before moving on.
"From there it's maybe a shelter somewhere," she said uneasily.
By midafternoon, rain was already pelting Gulfport, Miss., a coastal city scoured by Katrina in 2005 but now a prime destination for evacuees. After trying in vain for a room in hotels as far north as Hattiesburg, Louisiana refugees Mary Pierre and her son, Demarius, staggered into a Best Western, desperate for a "yes."
The desk clerk turned them down, but housekeeper Tajuana Cox volunteered her king-size bed for the night. "That is so wonderful," the exhausted Pierre exclaimed, wrapping Cox in a grateful hug.
By day's end, New Orleans' population of 239,000 had shrunk to little more than 10,000, Jindal said. He voiced hope that the number would be further reduced as officials intensified their pleas to leave.
Police vans with loudspeakers made their rounds through nightfall, patrolling abandoned neighborhoods and issuing mandatory evacuation orders to holdouts in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Most of the city's populated neighborhoods were already abandoned, and only small groups of the elderly and infirm lined up for the last buses and trains out of town.
Jerome Dilliole, 72, showed up with a small shoulder bag at the city's train station just after 11 a.m., less than an hour before the city said it would shut down the evacuation program. Dilliole said he wanted to stay because his wife is seriously ill at a downtown hospital. But the hospital would not let him stay, he said, and "I can't just wander the streets."
Dilliole said it pained him to leave his wife, but he was afraid to stay in his house, in the city's 7th Ward, which suffered heavy flooding in 2005.
"Uh-uh -- no way I'm staying," Dilliole said. "The hurricane's coming, and it's going to chase me all the way out of town."
Jindal echoed Nagin's stern call for citizens to evacuate and said that 7,000 National Guard troops had been deployed in the state -- 1,500 of them in New Orleans -- to aid in disaster preparations and prepare for rescue and public safety needs after Gustav strikes. An additional 16,000 Guardsmen are due to arrive in the next day, Jindal said.
"Don't take a chance of riding out this storm," Jindal warned residents.