HAVANA, August 30 – Tropical Storm Gustav regained hurricane strength as it churned toward Cuba Friday, leaving 78 people dead in its wake, as New Orleans began voluntary evacuations ahead of the storm’s projected arrival next week.,
Jamaica was rocked by the storm which killed at least 11 people on the mountainous island, as people on the US Gulf Coast hurried storm preparations exactly three years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region.
The system ripped through the Dominican Republic and Haiti earlier this week, then thrashed Jamaica, beginning its rampage as a Category One hurricane before weakening to a tropical storm, then regaining hurricane strength.
At 8 pm (0000 GMT Saturday) the center of Gustav was located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of the islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, and about 585 kilometers (365 miles) east-southeast of the western tip of Cuba, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported.
Gustav was packing maximum sustained winds close to 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour, with higher gusts, making it a Category One hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale.
"Continued strengthening is forecast during the next couple of days, and Gustav could become a major hurricane near the time it crosses western Cuba," the NHC said.
The hurricane was moving toward the northwest at around 18 kilometers (11 miles) per hour. "On this track, the center of Gustav will pass near or over the Cayman islands (late Friday), over the western portions of Cuba on Saturday, and into the southern gulf of Mexico on Saturday night or Sunday," the Hurricane Center said.
In Jamaica, Prime Minister Bruce Golding told reporters Friday that the storm killed 11 and displaced between 3,500 and 4,000 people.
"I am concerned that there are still a number of persons who are still unaccounted for," Golding said.
He added that some schools would begin the academic year a few days late because they were being used to house displaced people.
Streets in the normally bustling capital Kingston were soaked and reeking with the stench from overflowing sewers.
Gustav’s powerful gusts sent metal roofs flying and threatened to wreak havoc on the island’s banana industry, officials said.
Even though the heaviest of the rains had subsided, many Jamaicans worried about returning home. "It is all wet and I am afraid to sleep inside there," said Kingston housewife Charlene Markland.
Gustav was now bearing down on Cuba, where a fragile and aging housing stock is highly vulnerable to hurricanes. More than two million people live in the capital Havana, where many colonial era buildings, crowded with families, are prone to cave-ins after heavy rains.
Authorities in Cuba, the only communist country in the Americas, are famed for well-organized evacuation operations but acknowledge the dangers precarious homes pose.
Anxiety also was mounting on the hurricane-ravaged US Gulf Coast on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Authorities in New Orleans began bussing out residents on a voluntary basis, and considered ordering mandatory evacuations to prevent a repeat of the devastation and deaths of 2005.
President George W. Bush declared states of emergency in Louisiana and Texas Friday ahead of Gustav’s forecast landfall late Monday, when it could strike as a major storm of Category Three or higher.
Katrina, also a Category Three when it struck the Gulf Coast, killed some 1,800 people, most of them in New Orleans.
Civil defense officials in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince said that 59 people died, seven went missing and 22 had been injured from the ravages of the storm and subsequent flooding.
Gustav on Tuesday struck the island of Hispaniola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where eight people were killed, officials said.
British oil group BP, US ConocoPhillips and Anglo-Dutch Shell on Thursday evacuated workers from their energy installations in the Gulf as Gustav loomed.
ExxonMobil said it was "identifying personnel for possible evacuation to shore." About a quarter of US crude oil installations are located in the Gulf of Mexico.
And the US Department of Energy said Friday that the government was prepared to tap its strategic oil reserve if a storm damages oil installations in the Gulf.
Meanwhile a separate system, Tropical Storm Hanna, churned northeast of the northern Leeward Islands and could become a hurricane in a few days, the NHC said. On its current path Hanna could be over Cuba by the middle of next week.