Havana was placed under high alert as western Cuba braces for category 3 Hurricane Gustav, expected late Saturday. The hurricane is heading for the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana, after a deadly rampage through the Caribbean.
Hurricane Gustav, now a major storm picking up steam over warm sea waters, roared toward western Cuba on Saturday en route to the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico after a deadly pass through the Caribbean.
Gustav ripped across the Cayman Islands and took aim at Cuba's Isle of Youth before it was set to strike the Cuban mainland later in the day.
Forecasters predicted Gustav would cross the Gulf of Mexico and hit central Louisiana on Tuesday with the same brutal force Hurricane Katrina delivered three years ago.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Gustav's sustained winds had risen to 120 mph (195 kph), making it a dangerous Category 3 storm on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.
Any storm with winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph) is ranked "major" by the Miami-based hurricane center.
Forecasters said Gustav could grow to a Category 4, with winds of at least 131 mph (210 kph), before reaching the Cuban coast, and may strengthen further on Sunday when it goes into the Gulf of Mexico, where offshore platforms produce 25 percent of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas.
Gustav was expected to dump up to 12 inches (30 cm) of rain as it crossed Cuba on its way to the gulf.
The storm's center was 85 miles (135 km) southeast of the Isle of Youth and 225 miles (360 km) from Cuba's western tip, forecasters said Saturday morning. It was moving north-northwest at 12 mph (19 kph).
Thousands of people moved to shelters where Cuban officials had food ready for distribution and medical teams on alert.
In the western province of Pinar del Rio, workers rushed to move recently harvested crops of Cuba's famous tobacco to safe places.
The storm killed up to 77 people as it crossed the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica. No deaths had yet been reported from the Caymans, a wealthy banking center and British territory.
Gustav was an expansive storm with tropical storm-force winds extending 160 miles (260 km) from its eye.
A tropical storm warning was posted for the western Florida Keys, where up to 3 inches (8 cm) of rain were expected.
U.S. emergency officials, mindful of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, warned that Gustav would bring a 15- to 30-foot (5-to-9 metre) storm surge along the Gulf Coast, and said four states in its potential path were expected to begin large-scale evacuations on Saturday.
"This storm has the potential for being a very dangerous storm," said Bill Irwin, a program director with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Katrina was a monstrous Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico before hitting the coast near New Orleans as a Category 3 on Aug. 29, 2005.
Its massive storm surge broke through protective levees and flooded 80 percent of the city. New Orleans degenerated into chaos as stranded storm victims waited days for government rescue.
About 1,500 people were killed on the U.S. Gulf Coast and $80 billion in damages made Katrina the costliest U.S. natural disaster.
Louisiana authorities warned residents to prepare to evacuate and arranged transportation for those without cars. Federal officials say the levees are stronger now but gaps still exist that make vulnerable some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina's floods.
Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed it three weeks later, also wrecked more than 100 oil platforms in the gulf, which now has about 4,000 production facilities offshore.
Energy companies evacuated offshore workers and shut production in preparation for the most serious Gulf storm since the 2005 hurricane season.
As Gustav swirled toward the gulf, forecasters kept an eye on another storm, Tropical Storm Hanna, about 240 miles (384 km) north of Puerto Rico.
It was moving west-northwest with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) and could be near hurricane strength by Sunday, the hurricane center said.
Date created : 2008-08-30