Page last updated at 09:14 GMT, Sunday, 31 August 2008 10:14 UK

Getting out of the path of Gustav

With New Orleans being evacuated as Hurricane Gustav nears the US Gulf Coast, British tourist Martin Levere abandoned his trip and flew home a day after arriving in the Louisiana city.

Windows boarded up in New Orleans
Those staying in New Orleans are preparing for the worst
The 25-year-old Warwick University chemistry student, who lives in Coventry, says he only just managed to get on a plane - at two hours' notice - ahead of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation order.

He had been in the city with two friends after attending a conference in Philadelphia, and says New Orleans seemed strangely relaxed, despite the impending danger.

I flew into New Orleans on 27 August. When my friends and I checked into our accommodation we were told that the hotel would probably be closing on the 30th due to Hurricane Gustav. We were booked to stay until the 31st.

If this had not disrupted our plan, we would probably still be in New Orleans right now rather than safely back home in the UK.

After watching the Weather Channel we decided we would hit Bourbon Street and decide what our plans would be in the morning when we knew more about the hurricane. Before we left for the evening the hotel janitor advised us to phone the airport to find out what was going on. That man was a lifesaver.

'Inspired decision'

The next morning we booked a 'swamp tour' for the afternoon - which shows how relaxed the city was despite the impending storm.

However, before we left to tour the French Quarter we decided to ring the airline on a whim.

It was an inspired decision. Apparently every flight from New Orleans had been booked up overnight.

Even our own flights home for 31 August had been taken - our seats hadn't been guaranteed - and we couldn't catch them.

The city that nearly died with Hurricane Katrina could well be buried by Hurricane Gustav

Apparently the first plane from Louisiana to the UK would be 2 September. However, as we had also been advised that airlines would ground their flights and move planes away to avoid losing them, we knew that there was no way that we could realistically get these.

Our only way out would have been by bus, train or hitchhike - options that the population of the city would also have to rely upon.

We hastily rearranged our travel plans and were forced to take the next flight out of New Orleans, which was leaving in about two hours' time, and was the only one available to us before 2 September.

On the way out to the airport we saw many tourists preparing to abandon the city.

However, there was still not the sense of urgency I might have expected and I knew that things would only get more chaotic as the storm prepared to land. I was glad I was leaving when I was and hadn't chosen to wait until things got really competitive.

Impending catastrophe

I saw the so-called 'calm before the storm'. I used to think it referred to the weather but now I understand it is about the behaviour of people in the face of an impending catastrophe.

On the way out I saw no cars loaded with belongings, no queues of traffic. Although the roads were busy, it seemed like the citizens were going to work.

I think the people of New Orleans were desperately trying to convince themselves that their city was not in the firing line and feigning normality was their way of doing so. The route into New Orleans was as busy as the road out. It was most eerie.

Traffic jam in New Orleans
Residents of New Orleans are now fleeing the city by road, rail and air
Had we not acted on the janitor's advice, we could easily have been stranded in New Orleans.

Why did the airline fly us into the city when they must have suspected that there would be an evacuation some time soon?

According to the person who rearranged our journey back, flights went from being available to being sold out almost overnight.

We had a close call - had a few things not been said to us we could be in a lot of danger right now. We were three stand-by passengers on our flight out of the city - that means at least three people did not use their ticket out.

The people I spoke to said that if Gustav hits they will leave the city and not go back. It will be a ghost town, a city that exists for Mardi Gras and nothing more.

Even then it would be for tourists only. The city that nearly died with Hurricane Katrina could well be buried by Hurricane Gustav.




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