NEW ORLEANS, September 1 – Storm force winds and rain from approaching Hurricane Gustav began lashing the US Gulf coast early Monday, soon after nearly two million people fled the state of Louisiana ahead of the killer storm.,
The exodus is being called the largest evacuation in US history, and officials have also shut down the area’s vital oil production facilities.
Reports of power outages in eastern portions of New Orleans began after wind and rain began hitting the city late Sunday.
"The outer edge of the storm is already over the Mississippi Delta and going in toward New Orleans now, according to radar," centre meteorologist Patricia Wallace told AFP.
At 0300 GMT, the eye was located 220 miles (360 kilometres) southeast of New Orleans and moving northwest at 16 miles (26 kilometres) an hour.
However, the hurricane had a wide swing, with tropical storm force winds extending as far as 220 miles (350 kilometres) outward, the centre said in its advisory.
Still a category three hurricane, Gustav packed sustained winds of 115 miles (185 kilometres) per hour.
Forecasters predicted a slight strengthening before landfall, but Gustav was expected to stay at category three for the rest of its journey across of the Gulf of Mexico.
"This is a serious storm," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said as Gustav neared the shore Sunday.
People in the state capitol of Baton Rouge and other inland areas have been warned to watch for storm-spawned tornados.
Military and civilian disaster relief operations were in full swing with the memory of the catastrophic hit on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina almost exactly three years ago, and the local and federal governments’ botched response.
Katrina made landfall near New Orleans on August 29, 2005, smashing poorly-built levees surrounding the city and causing massive floods that destroyed tens of thousands of homes and killed nearly 1,800.
Louisiana officials said there some 750 National Guard troops already on the ground in New Orleans if needed for rescue operations.
Mayor Ray Nagin on Sunday ordered a sundown curfew in the city and vowed to throw looters into prison.
He told local television that the city had become a "ghost town" after a massive evacuation campaign, and that only about 10,000 residents remained after thousands fled the wrath of Gustav.
Some of those who left said they felt reassured.
"The mayor assured us our property will be safe," Wilson Patterson, 48, said as he prepared to board a bus with wheelchair-bound 84-year-old Earline Martin at the combination bus and train depot know as The Gate.
"We don’t want to get caught up in the Katrina craziness," he said, recalling the lawlessness that swept New Orleans in 2005.
Jindal said search and rescue efforts are already in place.
"We will begin search-and-rescue operations as soon as we safely can. That would be when winds are below 140 miles per hour," he said, which probably will occur "late Monday."
"We’ve got boots on the ground, eyes on the ground. So before that, even before we can get into the air, before we can get boats on the water, we do have people on the ground to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to save every single life."
Meanwhile, Jindal told reporters there were unconfirmed reports that three critically ill patients died while being transported to safer ground.
"They had to weigh the risk between sheltering in place and evacuating and made the decision they thought was best for their patients," the governor said.