Tropical Storm Gustav shifted course slightly on Thursday morning and moved toward the Jamaica, and forecasters predicted it would be a powerful hurricane by the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
“The re-formation of the center has caused a big southward change … and Gustav is now forecast to pass near the south coast of Jamaica,” the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
While the storm’s eventual U.S. landfall could be anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Texas, one of its likely tracks was west of New Orleans, the southern U.S. city devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Gustav was projected to hit the U.S. Gulf Coast around Monday, two days after the third anniversary of Katrina, which killed 1,500 people and caused at least $80 billion in damage in several Gulf Coast states.
In its latest advisory, forecasters predicted the storm would turn “more to the west and the northwest around the time it enters the Gulf of Mexico.” The Miami-based center said it expected Gustav would become a “powerful hurricane” as it moved into the southern Gulf on Sunday.
As traders pondered the storm’s potential impact on U.S. energy facilities in the Gulf, U.S. crude rose $1.88 to $118.15 a barrel on Wednesday, adding to two days of gains, while London Brent crude traded $1.59 higher to $116.22
The gulf is home to a quarter of U.S. oil production and 15 percent of its natural gas output.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put New Orleans residents on alert, saying evacuations could begin as early as Friday. Energy companies began ferrying workers from offshore oil rigs.
The seventh storm of what experts have predicted will be an unusually busy Atlantic hurricane season lingered for a day near Haiti, an ominous development for the impoverished nation of 9 million people where hillsides have been stripped of trees and heavy rains frequently cause disastrous mudslides.
Gustav’s torrential rains, predicted to total up to 25 inches (62 cm) in some areas, triggered floods and mudslides that killed at least eight people in the Dominican Republic and 15 in neighboring Haiti, officials said.
Among the dead in Haiti, where Gustav made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on Tuesday, were at least three people killed in a mudslide, a woman who died trying to cross a river and another person hit by a falling tree, officials said.
In the Dominican Republic, seven people from the same family were buried under mud when a hillside collapsed just north of Santo Domingo.
EXPECTED TO GAIN STRENGTH
At 5 a.m. (0900 GMT), Gustav was 80 miles (130 km) east of Kingston, Jamaica and about 170 miles (270 km) south of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where a U.S. naval base housing accused terrorists is located. The storm was moving toward the southwest near 8 mph (13 kph), the center said.
The storm’s top sustained winds were about 50 mph (85 kph), well below the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold for hurricanes.
Heavy rains in Haiti, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands could produce life-threatening flooding and mudslides.
Gustav was on a path that forecasters said would allow it to regain strength over deep warm waters south of Cuba and it was likely to enter the Gulf of Mexico as the first major hurricane to threaten U.S. energy installations there since Katrina and Rita in 2005.
Major hurricanes are those that rank from Category 3 upward on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity.
Gustav could shut down 85 percent of U.S. production platforms in the Gulf, private forecaster Planalytics said.
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