Deadly Gustav drenched Jamaica and menaced the Cayman Islands on Friday, while on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall forecasters said for the first time there’s a better-than-even chance that New Orleans will get slammed by at least tropical storm-force winds.
Gustav ripped off roofs, downed power lines and pounded rain into Jamaica, triggering landslides and flooding and four deaths. That raised Gustav’s overall toll to 71 lives after earlier deaths in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The storm was set to strengthen over deep, warm waters and was expected to plow into the Gulf Coast after roaring through the heavy concentration of U.S. oil and natural gas platforms off Louisiana.
Energy companies evacuated offshore workers and prepared for the most serious storm since the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season to threaten the 4,000 platforms that produce a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas.
"After the storm moves away from Jamaica, significant intensification is possible," the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The Miami-based hurricane center forecast that Gustav would strengthen into a minimal Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as it passed the wealthy Cayman Islands on Friday and then grow into at least a Category 3, or "major" hurricane, just after passing the western tip of Cuba on Saturday.
The chances of New Orleans seeing winds of 39 mph or more within five days was between 50 percent and 60 percent, the center said, warning that weather models "diverge tremendously over the northern Gulf" and that the most destructive winds could strike almost anywhere along the Gulf Coast.
"It is simply impossible to determine exactly where and when Gustav will make final landfall," said Richard Knabb of the hurricane center. "The chances of hurricane-force winds within the next five days are essentially the same at each individual location from the Florida Panhandle coast westward through the entire coastline of Louisiana."
Category 3 hurricane?
At 11 a.m. ET, Gustav was west of Jamaica, about 165 miles east-southeast of Grand Cayman. It was moving west-northwest at 8 mph on a track that would take it out over water and toward the Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory.
Its top sustained winds had dipped to 65 mph, below the 74 mph threshold at which tropical cyclones become hurricanes, but they were projected to rise to 127 mph within 72 hours, making it a strong Category 3.
On the Cayman Islands, which still have not completely recovered from a near direct hit by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, residents bought storm supplies while some tourists fled.
"I think we're going to get more than what most people expect," said local Turney Burke as he made a last-minute stop at a grocery store for batteries, duct tape and juice mix.
The Cayman Islands government released all civil servants from work and the offshore banking sector said it was ready.
"It's not worth our lives to sit out a hurricane," said tourist Ann Railey of Atlanta, as she prepared to leave.
Gustav barged into Haiti as a hurricane on Tuesday and killed at least 59 people there and eight in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
The storm then weakened before buffeting the lush, mountainous island of Jamaica with high winds and torrential rains, soaking some sugar cane fields.
Rooftops flew off houses and a 50-year-old man fell to his death after a strong gust of wind blew him out of the tree where he was picking breadfruit.
Energy traders also watched newborn Tropical Storm Hanna, 245 miles north-northeast of the northern Leeward Islands.
Hanna was marching westward and forecasters said it might pose a threat to the Bahamas by the middle of next week. It had sustained winds near 50 mph. Little change in strength was expected Friday, but the hurricane center said Hanna could become a hurricane in the next few days.
Katrina was a monstrous Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico before coming ashore near New Orleans as a Category 3 on Aug. 29, 2005, breaching the protective levees and swamping the city.
The resulting devastation when most of the city was flooded exposed deep poverty, racial tensions and federal incompetence as thousands of people were left stranded without aid. 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.
Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed in its wake, also wrecked more than 100 oil rigs.
This time, the authorities in Louisiana and New Orleans have warned residents to prepare to evacuate as Gustav nears and laid on transport for those who do not have cars. The state governments of Mississippi and Louisiana both issued precautionary disaster declarations.
Together the states put 8,000 National Guard troops on standby.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he would order a mandatory evacuation of the city if forecasters predict a Category-3 strike — or possibly even a Category-2 — within 72 hours.