Hurricane Gustav's Angle Hints at Widespread Damage

August 31, 2008

Hurricane Gustav is expected to make a Labor Day landfall near New Orleans on Monday morning with winds that could exceed 130 miles (209 kilometers) an hour.

The storm's expected angle of approach—moving northwest or west-northwest, hugging the Louisiana coastline—could mean that an unusually long stretch could feel the full force of Gustav before it moves inland, where lack of contact with open water will weaken it.

As of 2 p.m. ET Sunday, forecasters think Gustav's eye—which will contain the storm's strongest winds—may be just offshore of Plaquemines Parish, just southeast of New Orleans, by 8 a.m. Monday.

Two other parishes—the Louisiana equivalent of counties—Lafourche and Terrebonne, just to the west of Plaquemines, are also potential landfall sites.

If Gustav follows the projected path, downtown New Orleans will probably get sustained winds of 60 to 70 miles (97 to 113 kilometers) an hour and gusts of 80 to 85 miles (129 to 137 kilometers) an hour, said Keith Blackwell, a meteorologist at the University of South Alabama's Coastal Weather Research Center in Mobile.

Still, Gustav's storm surge could push more than 12 feet (3.7 meters) of water up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet shipping canal, which links downtown New Orleans with the Gulf of Mexico. If that happens, the narrowness of the waterway could make the surge even higher as it comes into New Orleans, and officials are worried that the surge will be higher than the levees.

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

Wide Path of Destruction?

Gustav's strongest winds aren't likely to extend more than about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from its eye, Blackwell said.

But because the hurricane's eye is expected to be moving in a west-northwest or northwest direction as it approaches shore, its strongest winds could rake as many as five or six Louisiana parishes as Gustav moves inland from the Gulf of Mexico.

"The area around Grand Isle [about 60 miles south of New Orleans] over toward Port Fourchon likely will receive the worst conditions if the storm moves along this projected path," Blackwell said.

Meteorologists caution, however, that landfall projections 24 hours ahead of time can be off by as much as 100 miles (160 kilometers).

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