By Carmen K. Sisson | TIME Magazine
Only a few lonely cars were heading west Sunday morning beneath a canopy of gnarled oaks along Scenic Highway 90 in coastal Mississippi. To their right, stark reminders of Hurricane Katrina — bare slabs where homes once stood, damaged streets which once led to vibrant downtowns, trees still festooned with insulation and tarpoleons meant to protect buildings that no longer exist. To their left, a steady snarl of traffic snaked its way eastward as residents from Louisiana and Mississippi fled the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, expected to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Monday morning southeast of Louisiana in Plaquemines Parish. At 6 a.m. EDT, the storm’s center was located about 85 miles south of New Orleans and was moving northwest at 16 mph, as powerful winds lashed the largely deserted Louisiana coast. These sustained winds of 91 mph (146 kph) and gusts of 117 mph (188 kph) were measured in Southwest Pass, Louisiana, around 4 a.m., the hurricane center said.
Things were a bit calmer Sunday, but Saturday night, barely controlled panic reigned as people flooded stores for supplies and took to the highways, slowing interstate traffic to a crawl. Steven Grabert, of Thibodaux, La., said he and his wife were alarmed when Gustav rapidly gained strength Saturday afternoon and were glad they left early — it took them six hours to make the 138-mile drive. With most hotels along the Mississippi coast filled to capacity early Saturday morning, weary travelers had no choice but to continue, hoping to find lodging farther north.
By nightfall, the few hotels that remained open filled quickly. In between fielding guests’ questions at Motel 6 in Gulfport Sunday afternoon, Victoria Hawkins said she was surprised only 67 of the motel’s 98 rooms were occupied, but it was a clear sign that people remember the harsh lessons of Hurricane Katrina three years ago and are taking the storm warnings seriously.
For everyone here, gas was another major concern as stations quickly ran out of fuel and began turning customers away. Ronald Aldridge, traveling from Hammond, La. with his family of eight, stopped at one of the few gas stations to rebuild in Pass Christian, Mississippi, which was devastated by Katrina and is still struggling to recover. Last time, the Aldridges fled to Lafayette, Louisiana, returning to find their home swept away. Today, they’re headed to Destin, Florida, hoping they fare better with Gustav. “It’s getting a little too close,” Aldridge said. “We didn’t want to stay through it this time.”
An estimated two million people have fled the coast, but some residents decided to wait it out, especially as forecasts shifted Gustav’s landfall farther west. Monica Spurlock, manager of the Pizza Hut in Waveland, Mississippi, brushed her hair back from her eyes and gazed at the Gulf as she filled five gallon containers with gas. She said she didn’t leave during Katrina, and isn’t leaving this time. Her employees, however, aren’t taking any chances. Only two of the 22-member crew elected to remain on call through the storm.
In Gulfport, many businesses boarded up and closed by 10 a.m., while others, including Wal-Mart, closed shortly after noon. The early closings caught most people by surprise and sparked a brief frenzy as people rushed from store to store, trying to find last minute items. Janette Mederos was among nearly 200 people who crowded into Fred’s, one of the few stores still open by 2 p.m. Though many shoppers were visibly frustrated to find empty shelves where batteries, candles, and flashlights once stood, Mederos took it all in stride, loading her cart with tiki torches and charcoal.
By late Sunday night, only a few cars remained on the highways in coastal Mississippi, but most people, like Aszlee Davis and her family, who traveled from New Orleans, had settled in for the evening. With her hotel door flung open, Davis relaxed on the balcony, enjoying the breeze as it occasionally gusted to a mild 15 mph. Still, she admitted she won’t sleep much while waiting for Gustav — she plans to keep an eye on the latest news updates. “You just don’t know where they’ll go,” she said. And so residents along the Gulf Coast watch, and wait, praying for the best and hoping against the worst in this still bruised, still storm-battered region.