Thousands Flee Mississippi Coast As Gustav Looms

GULFPORT, MS (AP) - Many Mississippi Gulf Coast residents left behind boarded homes and businesses Sunday and headed inland as Hurricane Gustav churned up the Gulf of Mexico on a path that threatened areas pounded three years ago by Katrina.

Mississippi officials were taking Gustav's threat seriously, but some residents were in wait-and-see mode. Mike Womack, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, noted earlier evacuation orders and said it was time for those in vulnerable housing to get out.

The threat of damaging winds and storm surge led the Mississippi Gaming Commission to order the closing of all 11 casinos on the coast, said Sandra Ammons, an enforcement official with the commission. A flashing sign outside Treasure Bay Casino in Biloxi read: "Closed due to Gustav."

A nearly 2-mile long line of yellow school businesses headed south on U.S. 49 on Sunday, preparing to evacuate residents fleeing the storm. And, police cars from as far north as Southaven near the Tennessee lines were headed in the same direction. The evacuations had caused some traffic delays along Interstates 59 and 55, where all lanes were strictly northbound to handle coast and New Orleans area evacuees.

Traffic also was backed up along I-20 near Meridian, according to the Mississippi Department of Transportation. At Summit, about 15 miles south of where I-55 was being returned to normal traffic flow, several people lined the highway Sunday, waving and holding up signs of support. One read: "Prayers 4 You".

Several businesses had already closed along the coast, and many residents were making last-minute preparations.

Robert Nickels, 37, of Gulfport threw together as many possessions as he could from his Katrina cottage Sunday and loaded his mother, girlfriend and his girlfriend's daughter for the short trip to higher ground. Nickels knows the drill. He left the house he and his mother shared behind during Katrina and stayed with his girlfriend several blocks to the north. He returned home to see his house wiped clean to the slab.

"We're loaded and ready to go," Nickels said as he secured items in a his box-truck. "The cottage is close to U.S. 90 and the water and we're trying to get everything out of it we can, and personal belongings out of the apartment."

The four, along with his two dogs, will stay with friends and relatives north of the danger zone. In neighboring Jackson County, mandatory evacuation for all residents living in low-lying areas, mobile homes, cottages and FEMA travel trailers began Sunday.

Some 1,300 Mississippi National Guard soldiers went door-to-door in Harrison and Hancock counties Saturday to alert thousands of families living in FEMA trailers and cottages that they should be prepared to evacuate Sunday. Residents in flood-prone areas were also being contacted.

Soldiers passed out fliers in three languages explaining the danger and told them they would have to leave. But not everyone was concerned at this point. Marcus Richmond, 32, fished Sunday with his three young children on a pier in Gulfport.

"We'll just wait and see how it goes. I'm not going to run until I see where it's going," said Richmond, who lives in Woolmarket, north of Interstate 10.

Richmond said his house escaped Hurricane Katrina without major damage. When a woman walked by and said it looked like Richard's family had caught dinner, Richmond took a drag off of a cigarette, smiled and said, "Yeah, that's my hurricane supplies."

Nearby, walking down the white manmade beaches, 45-year-old Suzanne Lee said she fled the storm in Abita Springs, La., because she believes Gustav will affect that area more. Lee said she is staying in her father's house just north of the railroad track in Gulfport. That's an area that was spared the devastation that many other communities faced during both Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005.

"I think my dad's house is safe, but my house will probably get flooded," she said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)