Hurricane Gustav roared into the Gulf of Mexico just short of Category 5 strength, forecasters said Sunday, but could hit the top of the scale before the end of the day with winds above 155 mph.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the “extremely dangerous” storm weakened slightly over Cuba but was expected to regain strength as it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and toward the U.S. Coast.
More than 1 million Americans made wary by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 took buses, trains, planes and cars as they streamed out of New Orleans and other coastal cities where Katrina had killed about 1,600 people just three years ago.
Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans ordered residents to flee the "storm of the century" by Sunday morning.
“This is not the one to play with," he said, according to The Associated Press.
Numerous faith-based, community, and government agencies are preparing to sweep into the affected areas after Gustav makes landfall late Monday or early Tuesday and makes its way through anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Texas.
World Vision, one of the largest Christian relief and development organizations in the world, has readied emergency supplies in Picayune, Miss., with several truckloads of additional goods on standby in Dallas, Los Angeles and other U.S. locations.
"We're making the most of this early warning time to prepare," said John Pettit, director of World Vision's domestic disaster response, in a report Friday. "Our staff in Mississippi and Texas have been contacting dozens of churches and community groups that we've partnered with since Katrina to let them know we want to stand by them for Gustav and help them serve the most vulnerable in their communities."
The organization's domestic disaster response teams were also on full alert, with expert staff prepared to deploy from around the country early this week should Hurricane Gustav prove destructive.
"We're hoping and praying that Gustav spares the Gulf Coast, but we know from experience that we have to be ready for a worst-case scenario," explained Pettit, whose team has been actively coordinating with regional authorities and other members of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) in preparation for the storm's landfall.
Meanwhile, The Salvation Army's preparations for Hurricane Gustav continued over the weekend with further staging of supplies and planning for evacuation of affected individuals from the Gulf Coast. Personnel in Hattiesburg, Miss., have set up a major staging area to support New Orleans and 19 shelters are being prepared throughout Texas. Across the region, more than 170 mobile feeding units are serving or are on standby waiting for deployment, along with other equipment. The Salvation Army's total current feeding capability is more than 560,000 meals per day.
"Right now we are asking everyone who might be in the way of this storm to get out and batten down the hatches," said Major Gene Hogg, the NGO's divisional secretary for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, in a report Saturday. "This is shaping up to be a big storm and we are anticipating a long-term recovery effort will be needed. The more people we can get out of the way before it hits, the better."
Gustav has already killed 81 people by triggering floods and landslides in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
President Bush, confronted with the prospect of a second monster hurricane striking the still-battered Gulf Coast, checked in with governors and federal officials Saturday to make sure Washington was doing all it can ahead of Gustav’s U.S. landfall.
"He told each of the governors that federal officials were monitoring Hurricane Gustav very closely," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said, according to AP. "President Bush pledged the full support of the federal government."
Bush is expected to give the opening-night address Monday for the four-day Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn. But if Gustav continues on its projected path, the convention may be disrupted or even postponed.
"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," likely GOP presidential nominee John McCain said in an interview taped Saturday with "Fox News Sunday." "So we're monitoring it from day to day and I'm saying a few prayers too."
On Friday, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore drew criticism for saying the timing of Hurricane Gustav is “proof that there is a God in heaven.”
“To just have it planned at the same time, that it would actually be on its way to New Orleans for Day One of the Republican convention, up in the Twin Cities, at the top of the Mississippi River” is proof, he said to MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.
In response, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise released a statement Saturday blasting the documentary filmmaker for the remarks.
“I demand an immediate apology from Michael Moore to the people of south Louisiana for his offensive and inappropriate comments,” said Scalise, a Republican. “People in Louisiana, regardless of political affiliation, are making plans to leave to protect their families from this serious storm, and the God I know would not share Michael Moore’s glee for our plight.”
According to reports, McCain and his wife Cindy planned to join running mate Sarah Palin in traveling to Jackson, Miss., Sunday at the invitation of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour because of concerns about people threatened by the storm.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, meanwhile, said he was considering whether he should go, stating that such a visit with the accompanying media "can be a distraction in these kinds of situations.”
“So we want to make sure that we're monitoring the situation and that we're being useful," he added.
Hurricane Gustav is expected to keep some prominent governors — including Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Mississippi's Haley Barbour – from attending the Republican convention. Depending on the path the storm takes, it could also affect the plans of governors Bob Riley of Alabama, Rick Perry of Texas and Charlie Crist of Florida.
While the Gulf Coast region is much better prepared than before Katrina, numerous officials believe Gustav could be worse than Katrina – including Louisiana’s governor and New Orleans’ mayor.
"Just pray to God that those levees hold," Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden told AP.
On the Web:
The public can help World Vision prepare for Hurricane Gustav and other disasters in the United States by contributing to its American Families Assistance Fund at 1.888.56.CHILD or www.worldvision.org. Corporations interested in donating quality, new products should call 206.355.3598.
The Salvation Army asks people who want to help those affected by Hurricane Gustav to visit www.salvationarmyusa.org or call 1-800-SAL-ARMY. Monetary donations are needed to meet survivors' most immediate needs. A $100 donation will feed a family of four for two days and will provide two cases of drinking water and one household cleanup kit (containing brooms, mops, buckets and cleaning supplies). The Salvation Army currently is not accepting donations of clothing and furniture for storm victims.