GEORGE TOWN (Reuters) - Hurricane Gustav gathered strength over the warm waters of the Caribbean on Friday roaring toward the Cayman Islands and the Gulf of Mexico on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly strike on New Orleans.
The storm, which killed up to 77 people in the Caribbean, plowed toward superheated waters south of Cuba where it could absorb enough energy to strengthen into a major hurricane before ripping through the heavy concentration of U.S. oil and natural gas platforms off Louisiana.
While long-range storm forecasts are prone to huge errors, the most likely track had Gustav going ashore west of New Orleans Tuesday morning as a Category 3 storm on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.
U.S. emergency officials warned that Gustav was expected to be accompanied by a 15 to 30 foot (5 to 9 meter) 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.
Oil prices slipped on Friday after a week of volatile trading due to Gustav’s threat to the 4,000 Gulf platforms that produce a quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas. Energy companies evacuated offshore workers and shut production in preparation for the most serious Gulf storm since the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Gustav strengthened back into a Category 1 hurricane as it neared the wealthy Cayman Islands on Friday and could grow into at least a Category 3 storm before reaching western Cuba on Saturday.
At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Gustav was 100 miles east of Grand Cayman Island and moving northwest at 12 miles per hour (19 km per hour). Top sustained winds were near 75 mph (120 kph).
Katrina was a monstrous Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico before coming ashore near New Orleans as a Category 3 on August 29, 2005, breaching protective levees and flooding the city famed as the birthplace of jazz.
The devastation 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 it, also wrecked more than 100 oil rigs.
In New Orleans, officials paused their Gustav preparations to mark the Katrina anniversary with a symbolic burial for more than 80 victims still unidentified three years later.
Louisiana authorities warned residents to prepare to evacuate and laid on transport for those who do not have cars. Federal officials say the levees are stronger but gaps still exist that make vulnerable some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina’s floods.
Gustav barged into Haiti as a hurricane on Tuesday and killed 59 people, and eight in the neighboring Dominican Republic. It then weakened to a tropical storm and went over Jamaica but may still have killed as many as 10 there.
“I do not want to speculate, but I am fearful that we could be looking at a number in the region of 10 in terms of the number of people who have died,” Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding told reporters.
Flood waters left residents stranded atop their roofs in Gordon Town near the capital Kingston and police enforced curfews in some north coast towns to curtail looting.
“The water is rising fast and there is widespread looting down here,” resident Jackie Thompson told Reuters from Montego Bay. “The people are even stripping the material from one of the bridges. It is awful.”
In the British territory of the Cayman Islands, which still has not completely recovered from a near direct hit by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, residents scurried to make last-minute purchases but only a few gas stations remained open as Gustav’s rains began early Friday afternoon.
The normally busy streets of the capital George Town were mostly deserted, a stark contrast to the traditional weekday bustle of the financial services industry hub.
Energy traders also watched Tropical Storm Hanna, 280 miles
north-northeast of Puerto Rico. The storm was moving west-northwest with maximum sustained winds at 50 mph (85 kph) and it could become a hurricane by next week.
Additional reporting by Horace Helps in Kingston, Kathy Finn in New Orleans; writing by Tom Brown; editing by Michael Christie and Eric Beech