NEW ORLEANS — Residents rushed to finish their preparations Sunday afternoon as Hurricane Gustav roared closer to the Gulf Coast, forcing millions from their homes and prompting the president and vice president to cancel their plans to attend the Republican National Convention.
In New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, scene of some of Hurricane Katrina's worst devastation three years ago, many residents had already fled. But firefighter Jimmie Harris had no choice but to stay: He was scheduled to work Sunday night.
Harris, fresh off an overnight shift, wearily nailed sheets of plywood over the windows of his two-story home before heading back to work. An American flag draped on his front awning blew in the breeze.
The city wasn't prepared for another major hurricane, Harris said. He had just moved his family back from Houston a month ago.
"If we take another hit like Katrina, I don't think there is any way we could rebuild again," Harris said.
The levees that ring New Orleans have been substantially fortified since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Crescent City is still far from protected if Gustav or another large storm were to hit before 2011, experts said.
Since Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked to repair and reinforce the 325 miles of levees and floodwalls that protect New Orleans and neighboring parishes from the storm surges and flooding that accompany hurricanes.
A $15 billion upgrade to the hurricane protection system is scheduled for completion in 2011. As of June, the corps said it had completed 48 construction contracts and had 47 in progress — some minor, some major.
But the project is only 20 percent complete, and there are significant gaps that make New Orleans residents nervous as they contemplate Gustav's arrival. The city is partially below sea level and is shaped like a bowl, its levees serving as the rim. Some neighboring suburbs are within the levee system, while others lie outside it.
For Ninth Ward residents like Darryl Griffith Sr., evacuating was the only option.
Like Harris, he also moved his family to Houston after Katrina and only recently moved back home.
"I got three children, man, I can't risk staying," he said while helping his family load their possessions into a Chevrolet Suburban. "If what happened during Katrina happens again, I'm never coming back. You just get tired of it."
Hurricane Gustav remained a powerful Category 3 storm Sunday as it marched through the Gulf of Mexico, and is expected to intensify. Forecasters, however, no longer think it will become a monstrous Category 5 before landfall Monday near the central Louisiana coast.
Wind shear, dry air and a "ragged storm structure'' will likely prevent Gustav from rapidly intensifying, according to forecasters at the National Hurricane Center.
"It will lose that window for picking up some real potent, high-octane energy," said Chris Sisko, a hurricane center meteorologist.
But Gustav is still expected to be ferocious when it slams into the Gulf Coast. It is projected to be a Category 4 hurricane at landfall with 130 to 135 mph winds. It could create a storm surge of up to 20 feet, testing the area's rebuilt levees that Hurricane
Katrina overwhelmed three years ago.
"Make no mistake about it," hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. "This one's going to be strong."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called Hurricane Gustav the "mother of all storms'' and ordered residents to leave.
"Get out of town," Nagin said. "This is not the one to play with. You need to be scared."
People living in the city's western suburb of Jefferson Parish, which was swollen by residents who did not return to New Orleans after Katrina, also were ordered to evacuate.
It was the first mandatory evacuation for the entire parish.
The city will not offer emergency services to those who choose stay behind, Nagin said, and there will be no "last resort'' shelter as there was during Katrina, when thousands suffered inside a squalid Superdome.
City officials said anyone not on their property after the mandatory evacuation started would be subject to arrest, and they said police would take a zero-tolerance approach to looting.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic was reported on highways leading out of the area, and officials instituted the contraflow system of making all major roadways one-way so people could flee faster.
A landfall about 50 miles west of the city is likely, but hurricane-force winds and significant storm surges are possible for a wide swath of the northern Gulf.
"Even if it falls just west of New Orleans, people in that whole neighborhood are going to feel the effects of a major, major hurricane," Feltgen said.
The oncoming storm prompted President Bush and Vice President Cheney to cancel their travel to the Republican National Convention in Minnesota. Bush had been scheduled to deliver a prime-time speech to delegates Monday night, and Cheney was to speak earlier.
Convention officials were weighing whether to change their convention plans, perhaps by stressing public service and even fundraising for victims of the storm.
Presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain headed to Jackson, Miss., Sunday for an emergency-management briefing. He said he would monitor the storm's progress and consider postponing the convention.
"It just wouldn't be appropriate to have a festive occasion while a near-tragedy or a terrible challenge is presented in the form of a natural disaster," McCain said to Fox News. "So we're monitoring it from day to day and I'm saying a few prayers, too."
Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas also decided not to attend the convention, instead opting to remain in their states during the storm.
Gustav left a mounting death toll in the Caribbean, with at least 94 confirmed fatalities: 76 in Haiti, eight in the Dominican Republic and 10 in Jamaica.
No fatalities were reported in the Cayman Islands or Cuba, where Gustav's winds toppled power lines and snapped trees and light poles.
Oil companies evacuated workers and shut down oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in anticipation of Gustav's arrival.
The shutdown had caused a one-cent rise in the average gallon of gas, according to AAA. Analysts said that rise might continue depending on the damage Gustav inflicts. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina disrupted 95 percent of the Gulf's oil output.
Benn, Branch and Caputo are Miami Herald staffers. Also contributing to this story is Miami Herald staff writers Frances Robles, Jacqueline Charles and Andrea Torres, McClatchy Washington Bureau correspondents David Lightman and Chris Adams, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff writers Sarah Huffstetler, Kate Gorman and Bill Hanna.