NEW ORLEANS - More than 1.2 million people in metropolitan New Orleans were warned to get out Tuesday as 140-mph Hurricane Ivan churned toward the Gulf Coast, threatening to submerge this below-sea-level city in what could be the most disastrous storm to hit in nearly 40 years.
Residents streamed inland in bumper-to-bumper traffic in an agonizingly slow exodus amid dire warnings that Ivan could overwhelm New Orleans with up to 20 feet of filthy, chemical-polluted water. About three-quarters of a million more people along the coast in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama also were told to evacuate.
Forecasters said Ivan, blamed for at least 68 deaths in the Caribbean, could reach 160 mph and strengthen to Category 5, the highest level, by the time it blows ashore as early as Thursday somewhere along the Gulf Coast.
"Hopefully the house will still be here when we get back," said Tara Chandra, a doctor at Tulane University in New Orleans who packed up his car, moved plants indoors and tried to book a Houston hotel room. Chandra said he wanted to ride out the storm, but his wife wanted to evacuate: "All the news reports are kind of freaking her out."
With hurricane-force wind extending 105 miles from its center - and forecast to continue as much as 150 miles inland - Ivan could cause significant damage no matter where it strikes. Officials ordered or strongly urged an estimated 1.9 million people in four states to flee to higher ground.
"I beg people on the coast: Do not ride this storm out," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said, urging people in other parts of the state to open their homes to relatives, friends and co-workers.
At 11 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Ivan was centered about 295 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving north-northwest at 12 mph.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami posted a hurricane warning for about a 300-mile swath from Apalachicola in the Florida Panhandle to New Orleans and Grand Isle in Louisiana. Forecasters said Ivan could bring a coastal storm surge of 10 to 16 feet, topped by large, battering waves.
Foster reports New Orleans officials are doing what they can to get ready for the storm.
"If we get the kind of tidal surge they are saying, the fishing boats are all going to be in the trees," said Jamee Lowry, owner of a bar and restaurant in Perdido Key, Fla., near the Alabama border.
New Orleans, the nation's largest city below sea level, is particularly vulnerable to flooding, and Mayor Ray Nagin urged residents to get out while they can. The city's Louis Armstrong Airport was ordered closed Tuesday night.
Up to 10 feet below sea level in spots, New Orleans is a bowl-shaped depression that sits between the half-mile-wide Mississippi River and Rhode Island-size Lake Pontchartrain. It relies on levees, canals and huge pumps to keep dry.
The city has not taken a major direct hit from a hurricane since Betsy in 1965, when an 8- to 10-foot storm surge submerged parts of the city in seven feet of water. Betsy, a Category 3 storm, was blamed for 74 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
Experts said Ivan could be worse.
Nagin said he would "aggressively recommend" people evacuate, but that it would be difficult to order them to, because at least 100,000 in the city rely on public transportation and have no way to leave.
"They say evacuate, but they don't say how I'm supposed to do that," said Latonya Hill, 57, who lives on a disability check and money she picks up cleaning houses or baby sitting. "If I can't walk it or get there on the bus, I don't go. I don't got a car. My daughter don't either."
The mayor also said many people were in town for conventions, and there was nowhere for many of them to go except their hotels.
The National Safety Council, which had about 16,000 delegates in town for its national convention, ended its meeting a day early Tuesday, and delegates faced the problem of getting transportation out of the city.
Despite the potential need for emergency housing, no shelters had been opened in the city as of Tuesday night. Nagin said the city was working on setting up a shelter of "last resort" and added that the Superdome might be used, but a spokesman for the stadium said earlier Tuesday that it was not equipped as a shelter.
By midday Tuesday, traffic on Interstate 10, the major hurricane route out of New Orleans, was at a near standstill, and state police turned the interstate west of the city into a one-way route out. U.S. Highway 61 to Baton Rouge also was jammed.
In the French Quarter, businesses put up plywood and closed their shutters. A few people were still hanging out at Cafe du Monde, a favorite spot for French roast coffee and beignets, and a man playing a trombone outside had a box full of tips.
"They said get out, but I can't change my flight, so I figure I might as well enjoy myself," said George Senton, of Newark, N.J., who listened to the music. "At least I'll have had some good coffee and some good music before it gets me."
Tourist Dee Barkhart, a court reporter from Baltimore, drank hurricane punches at Pat O'Brien's bar before it closed at nightfall.
"I looked into earlier flights, but they were hundreds of dollars more and I wasn't sure I could switch flights," she said. "I figure I'm happier sitting here drinking hurricanes than sitting at the airport worrying about them."
Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, thousands of residents, gamblers and tourists crowded northbound roads. Motels were booked as far north as Jackson, Miss., and Montgomery, Ala.
Mississippi regulators ordered a dozen casinos along the state's 75-mile-long coast to close at noon Tuesday. Many gamblers pumped coins into the slot machines right up to closing.
"I don't worry about what's going to happen tomorrow. We can't control it anyway," said Ed Bak of Fairfield, Ohio, who dropped quarters into a machine at the President Casino.
In Alabama, Gov. Bob Riley ordered the evacuation of coastal resorts. "This is a serious storm that requires serious action to get people out of harm's way," he said.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., the heart of the "Redneck Riviera," the sugary white beaches and offbeat tourist spots were largely deserted. Workers at Souvenir City, where tourists enter by walking through the mouth of a huge shark, packed up glass figurines for storage in a warehouse.
"I don't know if it will be any safer where they're taking it. Only the good Lord knows what's going to happen," said Pamela Davis, an employee.
Along Florida's Panhandle, the sounds of saws and drills filled the air as people put up boards to protect their homes and businesses.
"We are just hoping to still be here," said Matt Claxton, an assistant manager of a Perdido Key seafood restaurant as workers brought the patio furniture inside.