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Live report: Surviving Gustav

Fortune's David Whitford hops one of the last flights to New Orleans and joins the exodus west.

By David Whitford, editor at large
Last Updated: September 2, 2008: 7:08 AM EDT

Floyd Friloux, owner of an oil-testing company, wouldn't leave despite orders to evacuate New Orleans.
Hurricane Gustav lost strength when it hit the Louisiana coast, but try telling that to those caught in its path.

LAFAYETTE, LA (Fortune) -- "I'm with FEMA," I overheard a man tell a woman at the bar at the Embassy Suites in Baton Rouge. That was a pick-up line, believe it or not, which says a lot about the difference between Gustav today and Katrina three years ago. This time - so far, at least - the authorities are on the case, apparently doing exactly what they're supposed to do.

I landed at New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International around 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, on one of the last planes in. I walked over to Hertz because the shuttle bus wasn't running and got one of the last cars before they shut the gate. I then headed toward town on Airline Highway because I-10, the guy at the counter told me, was one way the other way.

A mile east of the airport I stopped to chat with Floyd Friloux, who had just finished washing his two big dogs, Duke and Shep, and had brought them outside to dry in the late summer Louisiana oven-heat. Friloux owns "half the block" he was standing on, he told me, and runs a little oil-testing company, Lubriport. His family's been here 300 years, and no, he's not leaving just because there's a hurricane coming. He stayed for Katrina and he's staying for Gustav, too.

But looks like Friloux won't have much company. By Sunday evening, 18 hours before the eye's projected landfall, nearly two million people had evacuated coastal Louisiana.

I was hoping to ride out the storm downtown but the hotel by the convention center that took my reservation on Friday was boarded up when I arrived, and no place else would take me. Already the streets of New Orleans were nearly deserted, save for the TV news crews and the cops clustered at checkpoints around the downtown perimeter, their blue cruiser lights flashing.

I joined the exodus around 4:00 p.m., a couple of hours before Mayor Ray Nagin's 6:00 p.m. curfew. There was lots of traffic heading north on I-55 toward Jackson, Miss., or so I heard on the radio (people were calling in saying they'd been on the road for 10 hours or more). But the passing lane on I-10 west was wide open. I drove 80 MPH, zooming past the long line of yellow school buses carrying those without cars to safety. I tried to find a room in Baton Rouge but nothing there, either. "Maybe Texas," the guy at the Motel 6 told me.

But I got lucky when I reached Lafayette, 80 miles west of New Orleans. It's 9:15 p.m. now. Rain is pattering on the roof at the Comfort Inn. There's just enough breeze to blow the blossoms off the crape myrtles. The TV says the evacuation of New Orleans is largely complete.

It's Monday afternoon, around 4:30 and Lafayette is dead in Gustav's path. The electricity went out an hour ago, along with the Internet, which leaves me but one choice for filing - my BlackBerry. (You'll excuse me if I'm brief.) The eye of the storm, or maybe just a lull, is passing as I type. A short while ago, the trees outside my window were bending over, limbs snapping, rain and debris pounding the roof.

They're calling Gustav a Category 1 storm now. I guess that's lucky, but what I'm seeing is plenty freaky. I headed south on US 90 about an hour ago, toward landfall on the western Louisiana coast, to see what I could find out. I saw lots of boarded up oil and gas service companies by the side of the empty road, giving way gradually to fields of sugar cane.

I was hoping for New Iberia, but had to turn back. I didn't like the waves of water crashing on the highway center line, or the way the traffic lights were dancing like puppets on strings and the power lines were swinging like jump ropes. So now I'm waiting for dinner, hotel management has promised a buffet at 5:00 for registered guests only, "sorry no to-go orders." To be continued... To top of page

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