HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Gustav blasted across Cuba’s Isle of Youth and toward the mainland with 150-mph (240-kph) winds and lashing rains on Saturday as forecasters said it could grow into a catastrophic Category 5 storm on its way to the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico.
A day after the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly strike on New Orleans, Gustav was a Category 4 storm as it crossed the Isle of Youth, which has 86,000 residents, just off southwest Cuba.
Gustav could rival the threat posed by Katrina in 2005 and emergency preparations extended to the U.S. Gulf Coast, where highways around New Orleans were jammed on Saturday and hundreds lined up to board buses.
Energy companies shut down three-quarters of oil production in the Gulf and prepared for the strongest storm in three years to hit an area that produces a quarter of U.S. crude and 15 percent of its natural gas.
Crude oil prices have risen in recent days and could soar if Tropical Storm Hanna, now in the Atlantic, follows Gustav in the offshore production areas.
Forecasters said Gustav was likely to near the central Louisiana coast as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity by late Monday or early Tuesday. Katrina was a Category 3 when it burst the levees protecting New Orleans on August 29, 2005.
Heavy rains and strong winds began to lash Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Rio, the main tobacco-growing region, where Gustav was expected to hit the mainland.
In its latest advisory, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm was centered 80 miles southwest of Havana and moving northwest at 15 mph (24 kph).
Power was out across most of Havana as the wind picked up and blew sheets of rain down the Cuban capital’s seaside boulevards.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths, but a Cuban television report from the Isle of Youth said buildings had collapsed and two boats had been tossed into the city of Nueva Gerona.
“The wind here is terrible. This is looking very bad,” said a woman named Consuelo, a Nueva Gerona resident who preferred not to give her full name.
“I can’t leave from nor open the doors or anything because the wind will take everything away,” she said.
“Right now, we have a lot of rain, many fallen trees and the banana crop is almost completely on the ground,” said Noel Diaz Gonzalez in the Pinar del Rio town of Paso Quemado.
“We continue evacuating people to stronger buildings but so far there are no building collapses or serious damage.”
Workers rushed to move recently harvested tobacco crops to safe places and Cuban officials said at least 200,000 people had been evacuated from areas in the path of the storm.
In Havana, east of where Gustav was to make landfall, people were moved from low-lying areas and many of the city’s crumbling buildings, which could collapse under heavy rain and wind. Trucks with loudspeakers passed through the streets, warning residents to take precautions.
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 overnight.
Gustav was moving northwest at 14 mph (22 kph) and was expected to move on Sunday into the Gulf of Mexico, where around 4,000 offshore platforms provide the energy-hungry United States with a large part of its fuel.
As the hurricane swirled toward the Gulf, forecasters kept an eye on Hanna, in the Atlantic Ocean about 305 miles east of Grand Turk Island.
It was moving west with top sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) and could be near hurricane strength by Sunday, the hurricane center said. A tropical storm watch was issued for the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands.
Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which followed it three weeks later, wrecked more than 100 oil platforms in the Gulf as monstrous Category 5 storms.
More than 11.5 million U.S. residents could feel the storm’s impact, 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.
“Plain and simple, Gustav is forecast to be a large and powerful hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, headed toward the northern Gulf coast,” said Richard Knabb, a senior hurricane specialist a the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Katrina’s 28-foot (8.5 meter) storm surge broke through protective levees and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans in 2005. New Orleans degenerated into chaos as stranded storm victims waited days for government rescue.
Around $80 billion in damages made Katrina the costliest U.S. natural disaster.
Federal officials say the levees 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 Terminal as families with bags packed and children in tow waited for transportation.
“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.”
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in New Orleans, Marc Frank in Havana, Editing by Michael Christie and Xavier Briand