NPR logo New Orleans Residents Leave As Gustav Looms

New Orleans Residents Leave As Gustav Looms

In New Orleans, evacuations began Saturday for people who need assistance getting out of the area before Hurricane Gustav makes landfall early next week.

People were told to report to one of 17 pickup sites in the city. From there, the residents will be taken to a central location to be put on buses or trains for evacuation to states from Texas to Tennessee. The lines were long Saturday and the traffic heavy on main highways as people waited to get out.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said Friday that people should not wait for a mandatory evacuation order.

"I am encouraging all citizens to start making plans to evacuate the city over the next couple of days," he said.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said nearly 2 million people may have to evacuate and urged parish authorities to get an early start.

St. Charles Parish and a few other low-lying coastal parishes ordered all residents to leave Saturday. Unless Gustav grants Louisiana a last-minute reprieve, mandatory evacuation will probably begin for New Orleans and surrounding communities Sunday morning.

The Category 3 hurricane with winds of 125 mph shrieked toward Cuba on a track to hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, three years after Hurricane Katrina. The storm already has killed 78 people in the Caribbean. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said it could become even stronger in the Gulf of Mexico before hitting the Katrina-battered U.S. coast.

Forecasters said there was an increasing chance that New Orleans will get slammed by at least tropical-storm-force winds.

Residents began pouring out of the city along the highways and the government announced plans for broader evacuations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it expects a "huge number" of Gulf Coast residents will be told to leave the region this weekend.

President Bush declared an emergency in Louisiana, a move that allows the federal government to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance in storm-affected areas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.