NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) — New Orleans has become a "ghost town" with only 10,000 residents left after thousands fled to avoid the wrath of Hurricane Gustav, Mayor Ray Nagin said Sunday.
"We think at a maximum we may have 10,000 people left in the city. It is a true ghost town," said Nagin, who said police estimate that as many as 327,000 have evacuated New Orleans.
"If there's any area where people did not evacuate, it's probably people who have means, people who live uptown (and were) never really flooded" by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, he said, speaking on local television.
"They were out walking their dogs this morning and had no intention of leaving. God bless them," said Nagin.
Nagin said he spoke by telephone with President George W. Bush Sunday and that both "felt good" about preparations for Gustav thus far, after the bungled response to killer Katrina three years ago.
More than 1,800 people died along the US Gulf Coast in 2005, most of them in New Orleans, where thousands were stranded for days without food or sanitation.
"We both felt very good about the way things are going now. It is just nice to see a plan come together," Nagin said. "The difference between now and Katrina is that we knew what we had to do in Katrina, we just didn't have the resources. This time we do."
New Orleans residents fled the city by car, bus, train and airplane as the storm bore down the US Gulf coast, with landfall expected midday Monday.
Nagin on Saturday ordered the city emptied in the face what he warned would be "the storm of the century," and advised that those who stay behind would have to fend for themselves.
Gustav is on course to crash ashore near New Orleans, in what Nagin said would be the first major test of the city's newly fortified infrastructure and rebuilt levees after Hurricane Katrina leveled part of the city three years ago.
"It's the first time it's going to be tested since Katrina," Nagin said, adding that it was likely that some flooding would result when the category three storm arrives.
"I don't want to jinx us in any way," he said, "but looking at this storm, I think we'll have flooding on the west bank. Don't think we can get away from that unless the storm goes to a category two or one.
He added: "I think the levees are going to hold on the east bank for the most part ... Everywhere else, I'm betting, is going to hold."
Nagin said Hurricane Gustav would provide proof of just how far the city has come in its post-Katrina reconstruction, and may even convince some former New Orleans residents that it is safe to return.
"People are waiting to see if these levees are for real," he said.
"I think that's going to send a tremendous signal to everybody that the levee work that was done, even though it's not complete, is in good shape," Nagin said.
"We're protected. And I think the rebuilding is going to take off one more time."
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