Nearly two million flee Hurricane Gustav

Sun Aug 31, 2008 7:44pm EDT
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By Tim Gaynor and Matthew Bigg

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Nearly two million people fled the Louisiana coast on Sunday as Hurricane Gustav moved within hours of striking land, possibly with a weaker punch than 2005's devastating Hurricane Katrina.

The oil industry from Texas to New Orleans was taking no chances either, shutting down nearly all offshore platforms and many refineries as Gustav threatened the region that pumps a quarter of the U.S. oil supply.

Gustav also took center stage in U.S. presidential politics as Republican candidate John McCain curtailed activities for Monday's opening day of the convention that will formally nominate him to face Democratic nominee Barack Obama in the November election.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said an estimated 1.9 million people had fled coastal areas and only 10,000 people were believed to have stayed behind in New Orleans.

"This is still a very dangerous storm," Jindal said at a news conference. "It's not too late to evacuate. I strongly encourage you to do so."

Long lines of cars and buses streamed out of New Orleans after Mayor Ray Nagin ordered mandatory evacuation of the city of 239,000.

Forecasters projected Gustav would land west of New Orleans around midday on Monday. But it was no longer expected to be a Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

The storm's top winds were expected to be around 125 mph, making it a Category 3 storm, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.   Continued...

<p>A man hauls bags down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, ahead of Hurricane Gustav's arrival, August 31, 2008. Hurricane Gustav churned toward the Louisiana coast through the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico on Sunday with strength that could rival 2005's Hurricane Katrina, prompting low-lying New Orleans to begin evacuation. REUTERS/Lee Celano</p>