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Gulf Coast residents begin evacuations

Hurricane Ivan churning toward U.S. landfall

Motorists clog the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway leaving New Orleans, Louisiana, Tuesday.
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A direct hit by a hurricane would flood New Orleans.

Beaches in Florida are threatened with damage and erosion.

Ivan topples power lines and causes massive flooding in Cuba.
As of 11 p.m. Tuesday ET

  • Position of center: 295 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River
  • Latitude: 25.1 north
  • Longitude: 87.2 west
  • Top sustained winds: Near 140 mph

    Source: National Hurricane Center
    U.S. landfalls:
    - Unnamed storm, 1935, Florida
    - Camille, 1969, Mississippi
    - Andrew, 1992, Florida
    Source: NOAA
    Hurricane Ivan

    NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Residents along the Gulf of Mexico began evacuating Tuesday ahead of Hurricane Ivan, a Category 4 storm projected to make landfall somewhere between the Florida Panhandle and Louisiana on Thursday morning.

    In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency and strongly recommended that residents evacuate immediately.

    A hurricane warning was issued from Grand Isle, south of New Orleans, to Apalachicola, Florida. A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions will likely affect the area within 24 hours.

    A hurricane watch remained in effect west of the warning area, from Grand Isle to Morgan City, Louisiana.

    "[New Orleans] basically sits like a bowl, and most of the city is under sea level ... so if we get a storm like Ivan to hit us directly" there could be 12 to 18 feet of water in the city, Nagin said.

    If people can't get out of New Orleans, the mayor said, they should do a "vertical evacuation."

    "Basically, go to hotels and high-rise buildings in the city."

    Mandatory evacuations have been issued for St. Charles and Plaquemines parishes. Officials strongly urged residents of Jefferson Parish to begin leaving.

    Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco declared a state of emergency Monday, and in a news conference Tuesday urged coastal residents in designated areas to leave immediately.

    As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, Hurricane Ivan had sustained winds near 140 mph, with stronger gusts. Ivan weakened from its overnight rating of Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, when it had winds higher than 156 mph.

    Ivan was located about 295 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and was moving north-northwest at about 12 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

    Also Tuesday, President Bush asked for an additional $3.1 billion in emergency funds to help Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and any other areas affected by Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

    Panama City warned

    Residents of Panama City Beach, Florida, also are under an evacuation order.

    "You must understand in all humility that you are at the mercy of the weather," Panama City Beach Mayor Lee Sullivan said.

    Sullivan recalled that Hurricane Opal in 1995 brought the region "to our knees."

    He urged people to heed the warnings and leave before the three bridges linking the town to Panama City are closed, which happens when winds reach 55 mph.

    Alabama Gov. Bob Riley ordered residents in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan to evacuate Tuesday.

    More evacuations

    In Mississippi, where Gov. Haley Barbour also declared a state of emergency Monday, residents south of Interstate 10 were under a mandatory evacuation order.

    NASA's John C. Stennis Space Center near Biloxi has been opened as a shelter.

    In Florida, mandatory evacuations went into effect Tuesday for most of the Gulf Coast counties, including Santa Rosa, Walton, Escambia and Okaloosa. Schools in 12 counties have been closed.

    Other evacuation orders affect only residents of low-lying areas or those living in mobile homes.

    Police in Destin were making sure residents got out -- including employees of the Back Porch Restaurant, where staffers were working feverishly to secure the building from a storm surge predicted to reach 13 feet.

    "The police are going to escort us out in the next half hour," restaurant spokesman Coby Gent said.

    Storm weakens slightly

    The National Hurricane Center in Miami is projecting Ivan will remain a Category 4 or will have dropped to a Category 3 by the time it makes landfall.

    No matter where the landfall occurs, forecasters said, a wide swath of the Gulf of Mexico coast will feel the impact because of the storm's size. Hurricane-force winds extend outward 105 miles, and winds of tropical storm strength stretch 260 miles from the eye.

    That means that winds of tropical storm force -- between 39 and 74 mph -- will begin hitting the Gulf Coast on Wednesday, making it difficult for residents to finish boarding up their homes and move things inside.

    Rainfall amounts of up to 15 inches and storm surges of up to 16 feet above normal tide levels are associated with the storm, the hurricane center said.

    On Monday, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told residents of the hurricane-weary state to take the necessary precautions, prepare for the impact and listen to authorities as evacuation orders go into effect.

    Ivan hammers Cuba

    Ivan ravaged Cuba before heading into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Since 1900, only three Category 5 hurricanes have hit the United States, most recently Hurricane Andrew, which pounded the south Florida coast in 1992, killing 23 people and causing about $26 billion in damages.

    The storm left more than 60 dead in its wake as it barreled across Jamaica, Grenada and other islands. Grenada was the hardest hit, reporting 37 people killed.

    Oil companies evacuated 60 of 117 offshore oil rigs and 382 of 764 manned oil platforms, leaving more than 1.04 million barrels per day of oil unable to be shipped out. That figure constitutes about 61 percent of the daily production in the Gulf.

    The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port also is shut down. The port handles about 1 million barrels of crude oil per day, or about 16 percent of the U.S. daily consumption.

    The military also began making preparations, moving Navy and Air Force equipment away from the storm's path, including 300 Navy aircraft moved from Naval Air Station Pensacola and Whiting Field in the Florida Panhandle.

    CNN's David Mattingly in Panama City Beach and Susan Candiotti in Biloxi, Mississippi, contributed to this report

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