for National Geographic News
Declared a Category 4 storm Saturday afternoon, Hurricane Gustav continues to strengthen and will soon reach Category 5 status—the highest—according to U.S. officials.
Gustav is poised to deliver a punishing blow to western Cuba late Saturday before entering the Gulf of Mexico and passing over a deep, warm current infamous for supercharging storms before targeting the U.S. Gulf Coast (Gulf Coast map).
The hurricane's Category 4 designation came after a reconnaissance flight into the storm reported to the National Hurricane Center in Miami that winds around Gustav's eye had reached about 145 miles (233 kilometers) an hour.
At a teleconference Saturday, National Hurricane Center director Bill Read said he is going to raise Gustav to Category 5, though he has not yet done so, according to the Associated Press.
Cuba in Crosshairs
Saturday afternoon Gustav was in the northwestern Caribbean and headed for Cuba.
Havana and the Isle of Youth [or Isla de la Juventud, south of Havana (Cuba map)] will take a pretty bad blow from this, Read told National Geographic News.
As of 2 p.m. ET today, the National Hurricane Center predicts Gustavs eye will hit the Gulf Coast late Monday or early Tuesday.
Landfall is expected at or near Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) west of New Orleans. But forecasters caution that the storm could come ashore anywhere from Alabama to Texas.
Gustav is expected to be at least a Category 3 and possibly a Category 4 hurricane when it reaches the Gulf Coast.
Category 3 hurricanes have sustained winds of 111 to 130 miles (177 to 209 kilometers) an hour. Category 4 storms have winds of 131 to 155 miles (211 to 249 kilometers) an hour (hurricane facts, photos, videos, more).
If the hurricane does touch down at Vermillion Parish, New Orleans probably would not suffer a catastrophic repeat of Hurricane Katrina's devastation almost exactly three years ago. Even so, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation Saturday.
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