NEW ORLEANS — Tens of thousands of residents streamed out of New Orleans on Sunday after heeding orders from officials to evacuate the city — the first mandatory evacuation since Hurricane Katrina flooded the city three years ago — as Hurricane Gustav grew into what the city’s mayor called “a big, ugly storm” and moved toward the Louisiana coast.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Hurricane Gustav was larger and more dangerous than Hurricane Katrina, and he pleaded with residents to get out or face flooding and life-threatening winds.
“We should start to see tornado threats starting tonight and in the morning,” he said at a news briefing Sunday morning. “This is still a big, ugly storm. It’s still strong and I strongly encourage everyone to leave.”
On Sunday afternoon, officials from the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, to Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and President Bush echoed Mr. Nagin’s pleas for anyone planning on staying behind to reconsider. Mr. Chertoff said he had heard reports of people determined to try to ride out the storm, and called that strategy “exceptionally foolish.”
With Gustav bearing down and Republican convention speakers like President Bush and Mr. Jindal canceling their speeches, Senator John McCain announced Sunday afternoon that Republicans would suspend most of the activities scheduled for the first day of their convention, which starts Monday in St. Paul. Rick Davis, a top McCain aide, said the Republican Party would conduct only a few essential convention activities, including adopting its rules and electing its officers.
“This is a time we have to do away with our party politics,” Mr. McCain said.
Mr. Bush, who had been scheduled to speak in St. Paul on Monday, said he would be traveling instead to Texas, where emergency workers are providing food and shelter to evacuees. Vice President Dick Cheney has also canceled his plans to attend the convention, the White House said.
“Several states, including Missouri, Texas and New Mexico, are preparing to and have accepted a lot of evacuees,” Mr. Bush said in a news briefing at FEMA headquarters in Washington on Sunday. “People who are leaving the areas of concern, we’re working hard to be sure they have a place to go.”
In New Orleans, Mr. Nagin said that 14,000 to 15,000 residents had already been evacuated through the bus and train system organized by the city and state, and that the number was likely to reach 18,000 by the time the buses stopped rolling later on Sunday. About half the city’s residents have left town and many neighborhoods are empty; Most of the holdouts are in the affluent Uptown neighborhoods that are on higher ground and did not experience flooding during Katrina.
David Paulison, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, acknowledged that there were still some people in the city but said “it’s dwindling quickly.” He took pains to explain that FEMA was being far more aggressive than it had been during Katrina, saying that the agency had pushed several slow-moving hospitals and nursing homes to evacuate Saturday night, and was gathering thousands of meals, blankets, cots and generators.
At the same time, FEMA is also keeping track of another brewing tropical storm, Hanna, which is swirling off the east coast of Florida, Mr. Paulison said.
The crush of evacuations that took place throughout the night and into Sunday came after Mr. Nagin issued dire warnings that the city could be devastated.
By midday on Sunday, the streets of downtown New Orleans and many other neighborhoods were completely deserted. Although the lights were on in about half the Garden District Saturday night, there were few people out in the streets in those areas, and few cars.
The city was taking no chances: a large sheriff’s department power boat was parked right outside of City Hall.
Mr. Nagin announced Sunday that much of his staff was relocating to Baton Rouge, and said he was instituting a curfew in New Orleans from dusk until dawn — when anyone on the street is subject to arrest — that would go into effect at sunset. At one point in his news briefing, apparently hoping to stave off a repeat of the looting that was rampant in the days after Katrina, he issued a direct warning to anyone with plans to linger in New Orleans.
“We have double the police force, double the National Guard force that we had for Katrina, and looters will go directly to jail,” he said. “You will not get a pass this time.”
Then, referring to Angola, the state’s notorious penitentiary, he added: “You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You’ll go directly to the big house.”
Though blunt, the mayor’s tone was still considerably less dramatic than it was Saturday night, when his warnings were stronger than the forecasts issued by the National Hurricane Center.
Mr. Nagin had called Gustav “the storm of the century,” but he may have been exaggerating in order to shock jaded residents into taking prudent steps. But he said storm surges, particularly on the city’s West Bank, could be twice as high as the neighborhood’s 10-foot levees, and said those people choosing to remain in their homes should have an ax to chop through their roofs when the floodwaters rise.