for National Geographic News
As tropical storm Gustav continues its trek toward the U.S. Gulf Coast today—the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's Louisiana landfall—experts doubt New Orleans' levees can handle a direct hit from a major hurricane (Gulf Coast map).
As of this morning the National Hurricane Center predicts Gustav will be a Category 3 hurricane when it approaches the Louisiana coast Tuesday morning. Category 3 hurricanes have sustained winds of 111 to 130 miles (177 to 209 kilometers) an hour.
The latest forecast predicts the storm will make landfall about a hundred miles (160 kilometers) west of New Orleans.
Meteorologists caution that landfall predictions five days away can be off by as much as 300 miles (480 kilometers). Also, the National Hurricane Center advisory issued at 11 a.m. ET today noted that Gustav's path through the Gulf of Mexico is "rather uncertain" and that "landfall remains possible throughout the northern Gulf Coast."
Keith Blackwell, a meteorologist at the University of South Alabama's Coastal Weather Research Center in Mobile, said conditions are in place for Gustav to undergo very rapid intensification during the upcoming Labor Day weekend.
The Caribbean Sea and southern Gulf of Mexico have very warm water to fuel the storm. And for the next couple of days there will be no wind shear—changes in upper-level wind speed or direction, which can weaken hurricanes—to inhibit Gustav's development, Blackwell said.
"Every component is coming together to produce a really big storm," Blackwell said. "I see a Category 3 easily. And conditions are there for it to become a Category 4 or 5."
A Category 4 hurricane has winds of from 131 to 155 miles (211 to 249 kilometers) an hour. A Category 5 storm's winds exceed 155 miles an hour.
Blackwell thinks Gustav's peak intensity will occur about 300 miles (480 kilometers) south of New Orleans. He adds that wind shear should pick up after the weekend, weakening the hurricane significantly as it gets closer to shore.
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