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2 million flee Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states ahead of Hurricane Gustav

Nearly two million people fled parts of Louisiana on Sunday as Hurricane Gustav nears the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Canadian military sends jet to aid evacuation

LaDawn Johnson, from Port Arthur, Texas, gets settled while her 4-year-old daughter, Chloe, sleeps at Worth Heights Community Center in Fort Worth, Texas, Sunday. ((Ben Noey Jr./Associated Press))
Nearly two million people fled parts of Louisiana on Sunday as Hurricane Gustav neared the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The exodus of 1.9 million people was the largest in state history, and thousands more left from Mississippi, Alabama and flood-prone southeast Texas, officials said Sunday.

Rainy New Orleans was mostly emptied of its residents after Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded with them to leave earlier Sunday and warned that 1,500 police officers and 2,000 National Guard troops would be patrolling the streets of the city.

City and federal officials clamped down on New Orleans to prevent the kind of lawlessness and chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

Elton Driscoll, an engineer for the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter in New Orleans, places a sandbag on a sidewalk barrier that runs by the hotel. ((Ron Heflin/Associated Press))

"Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time," Nagin said. "You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You will go directly to the Big House."

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Gustav weakened slightly overnight to a Category 3 storm. At 11 p.m. ET Sunday, the centre said Gustav was a Category 3 storm centred about 360 kilometres southeast of New Orleans and 500 kilometres southeast of Lafayette, La.

The storm was moving northwest at a speed of 26 km/h and had top sustained winds of around 185 km/h. It had weakened slightly during the day, but forecasters expected it to possibly gain strength before it hit land midday Monday.

Reports vary on where its centre could strike. It could hit just west of New Orleans or anywhere from South Texas to the Alabama-Mississippi border as early as Monday afternoon, forecasters said. Isolated tornadoes over the central Gulf Coast could occur Sunday evening, forecasters said.

The hurricane could bring a storm surge of up to six metres to the coast and rainfall totals of up to 380 millimetres.

Nagin made it clear that he wanted the entire city of New Orleans evacuated by Sunday.

"We want everybody ... we want 100 per cent evacuation," he said. "If you decide to stay, you are on your own."

On Saturday, Nagin said Gustav could turn out to be the "storm of the century" and urged people to take it seriously because it's not known how strong Gustav will get before coming ashore.

Canadian military jet heads to New Orleans

At the request of the U.S. government, Canada is sending aid to New Orleans to help with evacuation efforts. A Canadian Forces CC-177 plane carrying a team of medical personnel arrived in Lakefront, La., on Sunday afternoon to help airlift up to150 people per evacuation trip, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said.

Canada also said it will provide additional help the U.S. may require on the ground or after the storm hits the Gulf states.

The government is also advising Canadians against non-essential travel to the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, including the city of New Orleans. About 4,000 Canadians are believed to be in Louisiana and up to 30,000 in Texas, a Foreign Affairs spokesperson said.

Vehicles streaming out of New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina killed about 1,600 people three years ago, moved slowly westbound along Interstate 10 as people continued to leave the city. Louisiana and Mississippi temporarily changed traffic flow so all highway lanes led away from the coast, officials said.  

Officials hoped to get the roads out of New Orleans cleared by midnight, when the effects of the hurricane would start to be felt.

Late Sunday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued one last plea to the roughly 100,000 people still left on the coast: "If you've not evacuated, please do so. There are still a few hours left."

 Hurricane categories/wind speeds
 Category 1 — 119-153 km/h 
 Category 2 — 154-177 km/h
 Category 3 — 178-209 km/h
 Category 4  — 210-249 km/h
 Category 5  — 250 km/h and greater
 Source: Saffir-Simpson Scale/U.S. National Hurricane Center

Katrina was a Category 3 when its storm surge burst the levees protecting New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, flooding 80 per cent of the city.

In another development, presidential candidate John McCain ordered most of the Republican convention's activities suspended for Monday, the first day of the gathering in St. Paul, Minn.

Earlier Sunday, the White House said it was unlikely that President George W. Bush would attend the Republican National Convention on Monday as scheduled because of concerns about Gustav.

The president was supposed to speak late Monday night but White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said alternate plans for Bush are being prepared.

Gustav was just short of Category 5 strength when it made landfall Saturday on mainland Cuba near the community of Los Palacios in Pinar del Rio, a region that produces much of the tobacco used to make the nation's famed cigars.

At least 300,000 Cubans were moved out of Gustav's path as 220 km/h winds toppled telephone poles and fruit trees, shattered windows and tore off the tin roofs of homes.

Cuban civil defence chief Ana Isla said there were "many people injured" on Isla de la Juventud, an island of 87,000 people south of the main island, but no reports of deaths. She said nearly all the island's roads were washed out and some regions were heavily flooded.

"It's been very difficult here," she said on state television.

Gustav crossed western Cuba on Saturday. It was blamed for more than 80 deaths when it earlier hit Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Hurricane Gustav is set to make landfall just west of New Orleans on Monday. ((U.S. National Hurricane Center))

With files from the Associated Press