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Ivan nears New Orleans
Updated: 2004-09-16 09:51

Hurricane Ivan has driven hundreds of thousands of people out of New Orleans and the mayor has told stragglers to take refuge in tall buildings as the storm threatens to swamp the historic jazz city.

Storm evacuees clogged roads to higher ground across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida on Wednesday 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 (38 cm) of rain. The storm threatened a surge of seawater up to 16 feet (4.9 metres) above normal.

Ivan was forecast to roar ashore late on Wednesday or early on Thursday, on or near the border between Mississippi and Alabama. The nearest cities include Biloxi and Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama.

A long stretch of coast from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Apalachicola, Florida, was under a hurricane warning, meaning the area, which includes New Orleans, should expect hurricane conditions within 24 hours.

The core of the deadly storm was expected to strike the coast east of New Orleans, the party town 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 (metres) of water. That storm killed 76 people.

'Vertical evacuation'

Mayor Ray Nagin said the evacuation was going well but noted at least 100,000 of greater New Orleans' 1.5 million people relied on public transit and had no means to leave. He advised a "vertical evacuation" for those left behind, telling them to move to the higher floors of tall buildings to avoid floodwaters that could rise up to 18 feet (5.5 metres).

"We will have people in the city who will ride the storm out," he said on NBC's "Today" show. "We are very concerned about the flooding which could basically mimic what happened in 1965 with Hurricane Betsy."

Forecasters countered Nagin's advice with a caution that a hurricane's winds increase the higher people go. At the top of a 30-story building, the winds could be 20 to 25 mph (32 to 40 kph) higher than at ground level.

Ivan's top sustained winds were near 140 mph. At times during its passage through the Caribbean, its 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.

Shopkeepers and bar owners in New Orleans' famed French Quarter boarded up windows as residents loaded up and left town. At the Alpine, a French Quarter nightspot, bartender Connie Castagna said she had given up evacuation as an option.

"It's a little bit late to be thinking about that, don't you think?" she said.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1:00 p.m. British time), Ivan's eye was about 180 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River at latitude 26.7 north and longitude 87.9 west, and moving north-northwest at about 12 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.

People streamed out of Mobile, a city of 200,000 that sits on a wide river estuary, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic and travelling as far north as Memphis, Tennessee, in search of hotel rooms.

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 were shut down and Ivan spurred speculation on cotton, coffee and orange juice markets.

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