* Hurricane Gustav enters Gulf of Mexico
* New Orleans to be evacuated
* Crude oil prices could soar
NEW ORLEANS, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Ferocious Hurricane Gustav moved into the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico on Saturday where it was expected to strengthen and threaten New Orleans after its 150 mile per hour (240 kph) winds cut a swath of destruction through western Cuba.
The Category 4 storm swept across Cuba in a matter of hours and now poses a threat to Gulf oil fields on a projected path that could take it ashore near New Orleans, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Forecasters said Gustav’s winds had dropped to 140 mph (220 kph) crossing the island, but, like Katrina, it could swell into a catastrophic Category 5 storm, with winds above 155 mph (249 kph), as it surges across the Gulf’s warm waters.
It was expected to drop back to Category 4 on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale before reaching the U.S. Gulf Coast on Monday, they said.
New Orleans officials, mindful of the 1,500 dead and $80 billion in damage wrought by Katrina, ordered people in the low-lying city to evacuate starting on Sunday morning.
“I must tell you, this is the mother of all storms,” Mayor Ray Nagin said. “You need to be concerned and you need to get your butts moving and out of New Orleans right now.”
Highways around New Orleans already were jammed and hundreds of people, some still carrying emotional scars from the disaster three years ago, lined up to board buses. [ID:nN30496391]
Energy companies, whose 4,000 platforms in the Gulf produce a quarter of U.S. crude oil and 15 percent of its natural gas, braced for Gustav by evacuating personnel and shutting down three-fourths of their oil production. [ID:nN30468468]
Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed it three weeks later, wrecked more than 100 Gulf oil platforms, but Gustav could deal a harsher blow. [ID:nN30472395]
“This storm will be more dangerous than Katrina,” said Planalytics analyst Jim Roullier. “I think this storm will prove to be a worse case scenario for the production region.”
Katrina was a Category 3 when its 28-foot (8.5 metre) storm surge burst the levees protecting New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent of the city. New Orleans degenerated into chaos as stranded storm victims waited days for government rescue and $80 billion in damages made Katrina the costliest U.S. natural disaster.
New Orleans resident Leaura Landis’s home was washed away. The family rebuilt from the ground up, and moved back in last May after more than two years living in a trailer in the front yard. Late Saturday they rented a van to move out once more.
“It’s hard to believe it’s happening again,” Landis said. “This was just how it was in Katrina ... We joked that we would all be back home in three days, but we came back three years later.”
GUSTAV SLAMS CUBA
Gustav slammed into Cuba on Saturday afternoon, first raking over the Isle of Youth 40 miles (64 km) off the southwestern coast, then coming ashore in Pinar del Rio, the island’s western-most province and main tobacco region.
Cuban officials said the storm knocked over trees, damaged buildings, demolished banana plantations and, on the Isle of Youth, washed boats ashore, but no deaths had been reported.
Ahead of the storm, workers in Cuba’s prized cigar industry moved recently harvested tobacco to safety.
The Cuban weather service said one of its stations measured a wind gust of 204 mph (340 kph).
Officials said more than 250,000 people had been evacuated in Cuba’s four western provinces.
Olga Lidia Tapia, secretary for the ruling Communist Party in Pinar del Rio, said in a television interview the storm had caused “considerable damage” in the province.
In Havana, power was out in much of the city and along the Malecon, the famous seaside boulevard, waves from an angry sea crashed over the seawall.
Residents of low-lying areas and in the capital’s many crumbling buildings, prone to collapse under heavy rain and wind, were evacuated.
Hurricane deaths are rare in Cuba, where evacuations are well-organized and begin early, but Gustav killed at least 86 people in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Jamaica.
No deaths were reported in the Cayman Islands, a wealthy banking center and British territory brushed by Gustav.
More than 11.5 million U.S. residents could feel the impact of Gustav, the Census Bureau estimated. U.S. President George W. Bush pledged full support to the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas, the White House said.
Federal officials say the levees protecting New Orleans are stronger now but still have gaps that make vulnerable some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina’s floods.
Walter Parker, a security guard who was trapped for eight days in his apartment during the Katrina flooding, lined up outside the Union Passenger waiting for a bus out of town.
“I don’t want to see another Katrina, with dead bodies floating in the water,” Parker said. “I saw elderly people floating. I saw one body that really got to me, a child, floating, and it just made me sick.”
As Gustav swirled toward the Gulf, forecasters kept an eye on Tropical Storm Hanna, in the Atlantic Ocean about 230 miles (375 km) east-northeast of Grand Turk Island.
It was moving west/northwest with top sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) and could strengthen during the next couple of days, the hurricane center said. (Additional reporting by Jeff Franks, Marc Frank, Esteban Israel and Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, Erwin Seba in Houston; Writing by Jeff Franks; Editing by Michael Christie)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.