The United States girded for disaster Sunday as Hurricane Gustav plowed toward Louisiana, with over a million people fleeing the Gulf Coast and oil production all but shut off in the Gulf of Mexico.
President Bush cancelled plans to appear at the Republican National Convention in St Paul, Minnesota, saying he would travel to Texas to monitor the storm, and Republican White House hopeful John McCain vastly scaled back the first day of the convention, Monday.
"Tomorrow's session will be business only and we will refrain from any political rhetoric which would be traditional in an opening session," McCain's campaign manager Rick Davis said in St. Paul, adding that officials would evaluate the situation as the storm unfolded.
"We are not making any commitments past 5:30 pm tomorrow afternoon," he said.
Military and civilian disaster relief operations were on full alert with the memory of the catastrophic hit on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina almost exactly three years ago, and the local and federal governments' massively bungled response.
With Gustav on course to hit the Louisiana coast southwest of New Orleans around midday Monday, evacuations were ordered and New Orleans bus and train depots were jammed with people, mindful of the extensive flooding Katrina delivered.
Highways going north from the area were bumper-to-bumper with long lines of cars and trucks filled with people seeking refuge.
"The message to the people of the Gulf Coast is, this storm is dangerous. There's a real possibility of flooding, storm surge, and high winds," Bush said after meeting in Washington with emergency coordinators at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Sunday.
"Therefore, it is very important for you to follow the instructions and direction of state and local officials. Do not put yourself in harm's way, or make rescue workers take unnecessary risks," Bush warned.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a sundown curfew in the city and vowed to throw looters into prison.
"Looters will go directly to jail," Nagin said Sunday morning.
"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.
"God deliver us all," Mary Joe Decareaux said as she prepared to get on a bus. "We thought we'd never go through this again."
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.
Gustav, which left at least 81 dead in Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic earlier this week, blasted through Cuba late Saturday with winds gusting up to 340 kilometers (210 miles) per hour, wrecking coastal towns and knocking out communications and power.
At 2100 GMT the US National Hurricane Center said Category Three Hurricane Gustav was located about 350 kilometers (215 miles) south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River below New Orleans.
The storm was blowing sustained winds of 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour and moving toward the northwest at 30 kilometers (18 miles) per hour, putting its likely landfall around noon Monday, with winds affecting a wide swath from Mississippi to Texas.
The NHC said the storm's forward progress could slow but that it could also strengthen while it heads northward over the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the 1.3 million barrels a day oil output and 82 percent of natural gas production in the crucial US Gulf coast region was shut down Sunday in advance of the storm.
Bush said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA assured him that the government "has prepositioned teams of emergency managers, doctors, ambulances, search and rescue teams, aircraft and commodities throughout the region."
"There are millions of meals and millions of liters of water prestaged, as well as a lot of blankets and cots," Bush said, with the memory of FEMA's incompetent response to the Katrina disaster and the huge political blow it had on his administration.
In August 2005 Bush, Chertoff and FEMA administrators had assured that New Orleans was going to be safe even as television footage showed its levees bursting and water gushing into the low-lying city.
Sunday Bush said preparations were better, but that Gustav still poised a major threat.
"The Army Corps of Engineers assures me that while the levees are stronger than they have ever been, people across the Gulf coast especially in New Orleans need to understand that in a storm of this size there are serious risks of significant flooding," Bush said.
In downtown New Orleans Sunday afternoon streets were mostly deserted except for police and rifle-toting National Guard officers stationed at intersections.
Marc Magliari, the spokesman of the US railroad Amtrak, said a final train out of New Orleans will leave no later than 5:30 pm (2230 GMT).
"The tracks go through the levees and they are going to be closing the flood gates behind us," Magliari told AFP.