Residents flee new orleans

PINAL DEL RIO - Hurricane Gustav took aim at the US early yesterday as it swept into the Gulf of Mexico from western Cuba, where it tore off roofs, flattened buildings and plunged communities into darkness.

Having left at least 81 people dead in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica, Gustav smashed first across Cuba's Isle of Youth and then tore across mainland Cuba, southwest of Havana.

Forecasters said Gustav could hit top category five force as it moves toward the US Gulf Coast today or tomorrow.

"Gustav is forecast to remain a major hurricane along the northern Gulf coast," the US National Hurricane Center said.

New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin ordered the city emptied yesterday in the face of what he called "the storm of the century".

Republican White House hopeful John McCain and his running-mate Sarah Palin suspended their election campaign and visited Mississippi to inspect preparations for Gustav's arrival.

Roads out of New Orleans were jammed with fleeing people.

The alert comes just three years after hurricane Katrina left some 1800 dead along the coast.

Major oil producers BP, ConocoPhillips and Shell on Thursday evacuated workers from their facilities in the Gulf, where nearly a quarter of US crude oil installations are located.

Cuban national TV reported that the scene in Isle of Youth was one of devastation after the monster storm ground its way across the low-lying island of fishing villages, factories and citrus farms.

More than 250000 were evacuated from western parts of the country in advance of the storm.

Early Saturday, a Caymans official reported heavy damage on the large eastern island of Cayman Brac, with power and water supplies down. - Sapa-AFP