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Exodus ahead of hurricane Gustav more thorough - but some won't go

Nearly 1 million people moved inland from the Gulf Coast over the weekend. The mass evacuation is a first test of a new and complex safety plan.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2008

Evacuees from hurricane Gustav began to arrive Saturday morning at the American Red Cross shelter at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.

Mario Villafuerte/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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New Orleans

Nearly 1 million Gulf Coast residents fled the path of hurricane Gustav this weekend – a sign that emergency preparations among residents and public officials alike, if not perfectly smooth, are improved since hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans and flattened parts of the Mississippi coast three years ago.

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As major interstates filled during a bumper-to-bumper exodus Sunday, residents – some carrying fridges and dryers in pickup trucks – skedaddled toward Houston, Memphis, Tenn., and Atlanta to escape a storm that the National Hurricane Center called "a big boy."

The precautions are needed, as Gustav is likely to challenge New Orleans' up-armored but unfinished levees. The event is also a test of a complex evacuation plan put into full force Saturday afternoon. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu worried Sunday that as many as 20,000 vulnerable New Orleanians had yet to heed the evacuation orders.

"Are the preparations better today than they were before Katrina? Absolutely, positively," says Brian Wolshon, a Louisiana State University emergency response expert. "They took their lumps with Katrina. The problem is there's no telling if conditions will be the same [with Gustav]."

After a full-scale revamp of the region's emergency capabilities, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and state and local officials know they cannot permit another embarrassing and deadly fiasco. Staging of buses, boats, and generators began early last week throughout the region, and 2,000 National Guard troops were activated.

As Republicans gathered for their national convention in Minnesota, Americans watched government reaction closely, says Susan Cutter, a storm expert at the University of South Carolina. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who was elected in part because citizens perceived him to be a more effective on-the-ground responder than other public officials, including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, moved unprecedented resources into the area. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew at 11:30 p.m. EDT, effective Sunday night. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney decided to forgo the Republican National Convention to be on hand for emergency management.

"Politically, the Republicans can't afford a second hit," says Professor Cutter.

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