Gustav Spurs Katrina Fears, and Action, in New Orleans

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"This one has a mind of its own," she said. "It took that track a little to the south, and no one expected that. That could be better for us [in New Orleans]."

Margin of Error

Andy Patrick, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Lake Charles, Louisiana, noted that there is a large margin of error in forecasting a hurricane's path five days before it makes landfall.

That error averages about 300 miles (480 kilometers), meaning that when a hurricane does make landfall, it could be as much as 300 miles (480 kilometers) away from the point that was predicted five days earlier, he said.

Gustav is expected to gradually strengthen during the weekend and enter the southeastern Gulf of Mexico Sunday morning as a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of from 111 miles to 130 miles an hour (177 kilometers to 209 kilometers an hour).

Whether it gains strength from that point will depend on whether upper level winds known as wind shear are present.

These winds could disrupt the storm's organization and either reduce its intensity or prevent it from gaining strength as it approaches the Gulf Coast.

Patrick said that by Saturday forecasters would have a much better idea of Gustav's strength and where the storm would make landfall.

Better Plans in Place

The Gulf Coast was battered by a series of very intense hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. Bert Eichold, public health officer for Mobile County, Alabama, said emergency managers in that city are taking the threat of Gustav "very seriously."

Eichold said emergency managers along the Gulf Coast learned from the mistakes that were made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when federal and state officials were harshly criticized for taking too long to get aid into New Orleans.

(See related photos: "Agony Reigns in Katrina's Aftermath" [September 2, 2005].)

"Since Katrina, everyone has better plans in place, and the success will be measured in the proper implementation of those plans," Eichold said.

"I think we're in pretty good shape on the central Gulf Coast as far as planning is concerned. But the other side of the coin is, what does Mother Nature deal us?"

Willie Drye is author of Storm of the Century: the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

HURRICANE BASICS

Hurricane Facts
Hurricane Safety Tips
Hurricane Photos
New Orleans' Faulty Levees (National Geographic Magazine)
Forecasting Killer Hurricanes (National Geographic Magazine)

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