One Million Coastal Evacuees Seek Shelter

With Hurricane Gustav expected to make landfall Monday with devastating results, the nation's attention has been riveted through the weekend on New Orleans. But residents in dozens of other towns and cities along the Gulf Coast are also preparing for the storm – some heeding the warnings of officials and leaving, others hunkering down to weather the worst.

Up to 1 million residents of the coastal areas of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama have already been evacuated from the impact zone, and cities around the region were preparing to absorb the huge number of evacuees.

Hurricane warnings were issued for more than 500 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, from Texas to the Alabama-Florida border, as the monstrous, 600-mile wide storm churned its way toward the United States.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana declared mandatory evacuations for 21 coastal parishes and opened the state's highways to contraflow traffic, allowing evacuees to use southbound lanes to drive northwards to safety.

Evacuations are under way in one of those parishes, Plaquemines, where the city of Belle Chase is under threat of flooding for the first time ever.

"I think we're in a more perilous position that we've ever been, at any time in our history," said parish Sheriff Jeff Hingless, who doubts the city's levees will withstand the deluge.

According to The Associated Press, many of the 1 million estimated evacuees were leaving New Orleans. Over the weekend, residents without their own cars were put on trains to Memphis and buses bound for shelters in northern Louisiana cities like Shreveport and Monroe.

According to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, some 14,000 to 15,000 residents had already been evacuated by early Sunday evening, many having driven out of the city and taken up residence in state- and parish-sponsored shelters.

Ten thousand people from around the state already fully occupy four in-state shelters -- one each in Bastrop and Monroe and two in Shreveport -- set up for people without their own cars, according to the Louisiana Department of Social Services, which runs the shelters.

Two other similar shelters run by FEMA and the Red Cross are also at capacity, with 5,500 people.

Some 400 people with medical conditions have taken up residence in "medical special needs shelters" in five Louisiana cities. The medical shelters, staffed by members of the Department of Health and Hospitals, can accommodate just over 2,200 people total.

Residents driving their own vehicles can stop along the evacuation route at centers that give them the latest information on available shelter spaces. Evacuees can make reservations at shelters in advance rather than drive from shelter to shelter looking for available beds, said Cheryl Michelet, spokesperson for the Department of Social Services.

Michelet said there are currently 68,000 in-state spaces available for residents, with more being created.

"We can accommodate around 100,000 people. In the worst-case scenario, where the entire coastline is evacuated, which is happening now, we'd need room for about 250,000 people. That's why we've had to send people out of state," she said.

Louisiana residents are being evacuated to Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Some evacuees who did not make reservations from the road found themselves in Shreveport today with nowhere to stay.

"Well, they said we couldn't get in because it was overbooked, so they tried to tell us someplace else to go, but we don't know nothing about Shreveport," said New Orleans evacuee Tama Williams.

Williams, along with her husband and four young children, made the normally five-hour road trip in 25 hours in heavy traffic.

Most resident have left by car driving north. Despite contraflow measures, traffic outside New Orleans was grindingly slow through the weekend. The normally hourlong drive to Baton Rouge, some 60 miles to the north, was taking about five hours.

Baton Rouge has no plans for evacuation, but neither is it taking evacuees. The city is being used to house first responders working along the coast.

"All evacuees are to go farther north," said Walter Monsour, chief administrator of East Baton Rouge Parish. "We are reserving Baton Rouge just for first responders."

The city, he said, is one of two cities in the country with a Class 1 emergency response rating. He said officials were closely watching the weather, but did not anticipate flooding in Baton Rouge or the need to evacuate or to get help from the state.

"We're in good shape. We'll be supporting the state much more than they're supporting us. We've got a plan and we're ready to put it into position. We're praying for the best, but prepared for the worst," he said.

In Mississippi, residents of the three coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson were evacuated. Evacuations were mandatory for people still living in FEMA trailers or "Mississippi cottages," temporary housing built in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"We've got plenty of shelters throughout the state, and so far it looks as if people are listening and leaving the area. We're getting calls from people on the road driving north and looking for places to stay," said Robbie Wilbur, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi ordered two highways opened to allow for contraflow traffic from Louisiana.

In Alabama, Gov. Bob Riley issued a mandatory evacuation order for some coastal areas of Mobile and Baldwin counties. Some Southeast Texas towns have also been ordered to evacuate. Residents in Sabine Pass and Port Arthur, both struck three years ago by Hurricane Rita, have been told to leave.

The Red Cross says it has established 500 shelters across Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas and plans to send 3,000 people to help out.

"We already have thousands of material supplies positioned around the area. We have a huge warehouse in Hattiesburg, so it won't take us long to get stuff to the people who need," she said.

"So far, things looks like they're going according to plan, but no one can really know what will happen next."