WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hurricane Gustav was expected to build to a dangerous Category 3 storm by the time it hits land in the United States on Tuesday, U.S. emergency officials said on Friday.
The hurricane was expected to be accompanied by 15-30 foot (5-9 metre) storm surges along the U.S. Gulf Coast, and four states in its path were expected to begin large-scale evacuations on Saturday, officials said in a news conference on storm preparations.
“This storm has the potential for being a very dangerous storm ... so we strongly encourage the residents to follow the instructions of the local emergency management officials and be prepared to evacuate,” said Bill Irwin, a program director with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages flood-control projects.
Louisiana and Texas were beginning some evacuations on Friday of medical patients or others who needed assistance, and tourists were being asked to leave Louisiana, said Adm. Harvey Johnson, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Voluntary and mandatory evacuations would follow on Saturday and Sunday in those states plus Alabama and Mississippi.
Hundreds of thousands of homes lay in the potential path of the storm, including more than 240,000 in Louisiana alone, Johnson said. “It will be a huge number,” he said of the evacuation plans.
Planes, trains and buses will be deployed in the evacuations and states as far away as New Mexico and Tennessee have agreed to accept evacuees, Johnson said.
Gustav strengthened back to a hurricane on Friday as it headed toward the Cayman Islands. Johnson said it was expected to reach Category 2 on the five-stage Simpson-Saffir scale near western Cuba, and hit Category 3 before striking the United States.
Gustav’s projected path takes it over the oil-producing Gulf of Mexico, threatening a repeat of production disruptions from Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
But the U.S. Energy Department plans to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to make up for any disruptions. It can release up to 4.4 million barrels of oil per day, three times daily production in the gulf, said Kevin Kolever, assistant energy secretary for energy delivery.
He said the reserve held a record 707 million barrels of oil. “We are better able to respond to an oil disruption scenario than we ever have before,” Kolever said.
Reporting by Randall Mikkelsen; editing by David Alexander and Mohammad Zargham