By Russell McCulley
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Hurricane Ivan drove hundreds of thousands of people out of New Orleans on Wednesday and the mayor told stragglers to take refuge in tall buildings as the storm threatened to swamp the historic jazz city.
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Evacuees clogged roads to higher ground across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida as Ivan headed toward shore after a rampage through the Caribbean that killed at least 68 people and caused extensive damage in Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
Authorities urged millions of people along a 400-mile stretch of the U.S. Gulf coast to flee one of the most intense Atlantic storms on record with 140-mph winds and 15 inches of rain. The storm threatened a surge of seawater up to 16 feet above normal.
As the fringes of the hurricane reached the Gulf coast, forecasters said Ivan’s center would likely roar ashore early on Thursday near the Mississippi-Alabama border. The nearest cities include Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.
People streamed out of Mobile, a city of 200,000 on a wide estuary, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic and traveling as far north as Memphis, Tennessee, in search of hotel rooms.
Residents latched the shutters on antebellum homes in the historic districts of the 300-year-old city founded by the French on Mobile Bay. Piles of sandbags barricaded businesses against an expected flood.
The core of the deadly storm was expected to strike the coast east of New Orleans, the party town famed for Mardi Gras, brothels and bawdy behavior that sits below sea level near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Perched between the Gulf and vast Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans last endured a direct hit from a major hurricane in 1965 when Betsy submerged parts of the city under several feet of water. That storm killed 76 people.
Mayor Ray Nagin expressed relief that the city was probably not facing a direct hit, but he added that given the size and strength of the storm, «we’re not out of the woods yet.»
Nagin said at least 100,000 of greater New Orleans’ 1.5 million people relied on public transit and had no way to leave. He advised a «vertical evacuation» for those left behind, telling them to move to higher floors in tall buildings to avoid floods waters.
«We are very concerned about the flooding which could basically mimic what happened in 1965 with Hurricane Betsy,» he said on NBC’s «Today» show.
Ivan’s top sustained winds were about 135 mph. At times during its passage through the Caribbean, winds measured 165 mph and forecasters said it was the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record.
It was expected to reach shore as at least a Category 3 storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, the same as Betsy.
Louisiana police reported a steady stream of traffic on the 220-mile stretch of Interstate 10 from New Orleans to the Texas border as residents fled. Officials opened the Superdome sports stadium as a hurricane shelter.
The French Quarter was largely deserted, with a handful of tourists strolling the streets, clutching cups of beer. A few bars stayed open until a 2 p.m. curfew took effect.
Plywood shutters were spray-painted with «Go away Ivan» and other, less polite, messages.
The city’s police department suspended leave and had dozens of officers on patrol — wearing blue jeans with their uniform tops in case the water gets deep — searching for the homeless and other storm stragglers.
«We’re out looking for everyone to try to get them to shelter,» Lt. Reginald Jacque said.
At 11 a.m. EDT Ivan’s eye was about 235 miles south of Mobile, Alabama at latitude 27.3 north and longitude 88 west, and moving north at about 13 mph, forecasters said.
Florida authorities, facing a possible third hurricane strike in just over a month, told about 543,000 people to evacuate mobile homes and flood-prone coastal areas in at least 10 western counties.
Oil companies have taken thousands of workers from offshore platforms and shut down some refineries and rigs in the Gulf, home of about a quarter of the U.S. oil and gas output. Ivan’s menacing presence helped push up oil prices on Tuesday, but prices steadied on Wednesday.
U.S. grain exports from the Gulf shut down and Ivan spurred speculation on cotton, coffee and orange juice markets.
By Russell McCulley