NEW ORLEANS — Boarded up, abandoned but still vulnerable, New Orleans anxiously braced itself for deadly Hurricane Gustav, praying it wouldn't topple all that has been rebuilt in the three years since Hurricane Katrina crippled the city.
After hundreds of thousands of people fled from New Orleans and coastal areas, officials' concerns turned to the area's levee system that still is three years away from having the completed repairs it needs.
Asked which levees stood the greatest chance of failing on Monday, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu said: "All of them."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked since 2005 to repair and reinforce 325 miles of levees and floodwalls that ring New Orleans and its neighboring parishes, but experts said the $15 billion in improvements wouldn't be finished until 2011. Even when finished, the work still won't create levees that can withstand a Katrina-intensity storm, which Gustav is projected to be at landfall.
The project also is only 20 percent complete, and there are significant gaps that made New Orleans residents nervous as Gustav approached. The city is partially below sea level and is shaped like a bowl, its levees serving as the rim.
The improvements so far represent "a substantial difference" over the 2005 levees, said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer.
But President Bush warned that flooding might be inevitable.
"The Army Corps of Engineers informs me that while the levees are stronger than they've ever been, people across the Gulf Coast, especially in New Orleans, need to understand that in a storm of this size there is serious risk of significant flooding," Bush said from FEMA headquarters in Washington, adding, "The American people stand with you."
As with Katrina, one of the biggest threats this time is the potential 15-foot storm surge Gustav could drive into the city.
Said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff: "We could get a storm surge that is going to overtop some of the levees. There is pretty much no way the city of New Orleans is going to be dry at the end of this."
Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas also decided not to attend the convention, opting to remain in their states during the storm. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist also announced he would stay in his state instead of going to Minnesota.
Late Sunday, Gustav remained a major Category 3 storm as it marched up the Gulf of Mexico with 115 mph winds. Katrina was a Category 3 when it made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people.
Wind shear, dry air and a ragged core prevented Gustav from rapidly intensifying Sunday, and forecasters downgraded their landfall-intensity projection to show Gustav hitting the central Louisiana coast near Morgan City as a Category 3 storm at midday Monday. Tropical storm-force winds began to cross into southern Louisiana late Sunday.
"It never made that real big-bang rise in intensity," said Chris Sisko, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in South Florida. "That's a good thing, of course, but regardless, this storm is going to be a significant event."
Like top federal leaders, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin took early action and used stern language to keep his city safe and avoid the chaos of Katrina. He instituted a dusk-to-dawn curfew, which he said police and National Guard troops would strictly enforce. And he said authorities would take a zero-tolerance approach to looting.
"Looters will go directly to jail," Nagin said. "You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You will go directly to the Big House."
Residents heeded dire evacuation orders that authorities issued earlier and with better planning than during Katrina.
"They're doing a good job," said Eric Bozeman, 43, as he stood in line to board a bus out of New Orleans Sunday. ''No one is out here jostling, pushing. They got it under control."
The city will not offer emergency services to those who choose stay behind, Nagin said, and there will be no ''last-resort'' shelter as there was during Katrina, when thousands suffered inside a squalid Superdome.
Nagin also told remaining residents to be careful of the FEMA trailers left over from Katrina, which are only rated to withstand 40 mph winds.
"Most of them will become projectiles and start to fly around the city," the mayor said.
Thousands of National Guard troops joined about 1,400 New Orleans police officers and guardsmen from other states to help patrol and secure the city and other coastal areas.
The Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior reported that 96 percent of Gulf of Mexico oil production had been shut down by midday Sunday as companies feverishly worked to get their workers safely off offshore oil platforms.
This shut-down takes about 1.2 million barrels a day of oil out of production for the next several days, and is likely to cause a temporary bump in national gasoline prices later in the week.
As the Gulf Coast prepared, Caribbean islands continued to pick up the pieces left in Gustav's wake. At least 94 deaths have been confirmed: 76 in Haiti, eight in the Dominican Republic and 10 in Jamaica. On Sunday, authorities in Key West said a man died when he fell overboard from a cargo boat during Gustav's passing.
No fatalities were reported in the Cayman Islands or Cuba, where Gustav's winds toppled power lines and snapped trees and light poles. Cuba's government called Gustav the worst storm to hit the island in 50 years.
Caputo and Benn are Miami Herald staff writers and Adams is with McClatchy's Washington Bureau. Also contributing to this story were David Ovalle, Lesley Clark, Mary Ellen Klas, Frances Robles and Jacqueline Charles of The Herald; McClatchy Washington Bureau correspondents David Lightman and Kevin G. Hall; Biloxi Sun-Herald staff writer Mary Perez, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff writers Alex Branch, Sarah Huffstetler, Kate Gorman and Bill Hanna.