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Gustav Spurs Katrina Fears, and Action, in New Orleans

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
August 28, 2008
 
As tropical storm Gustav churns in the Caribbean, emergency management personnel in and around New Orleans are already gearing up for a possible hit.

The storm is expected to regain hurricane status later today or tomorrow and take aim at the U.S. Gulf Coast next week—possibly as a major Category 3 hurricane.

The storm was a Category 1 hurricane until it crossed Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The island's mountains disrupted and weakened the storm, though at least 23 people have died.

Gustav began its trek across the Caribbean Sea earlier this week. As of Thursday morning, forecasters thought the storm might move ashore late Monday or early Tuesday anywhere from the central Florida Panhandle to the central coast of Texas.

That area includes New Orleans (read more in National Geographic magazine), which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina almost exactly three years ago.

(Special report: National Geographic magazine on New Orleans' hurricane vulnerabilities—full article, interactive map, videos, and more.)

"We Are Prepared"

Although no evacuation orders have been issued, emergency management personnel in and around New Orleans are already gearing up for the storm.

Patricia Borne, public information officer for Jefferson Parish, a New Orleans suburb, said officials are laying out their plans for coping with Gustav in case it comes their way.

"All departments are going through their checklists at this hour," Borne said. "We are prepared."

Still, forecasting Gustav's path and intensity has been a challenge for meteorologists and emergency management personnel.

Borne noted that Gustav made an unexpected jog southward as it neared Jamaica.

"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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