Hurricane Ivan took a step closer to
the U.S. Gulf Coast as it passed by the western portion of Cuba Monday,
according to the National Weather Service.
The most likely sites for Ivan to make
landfall in the United States are somewhere between Florida’s panhandle and
Louisiana. The storm has alternated between category 5 status, with sustained
winds near 160 mph, and category 4, with winds up to 155 mph. It is one of the
most powerful storms to hit the area during the past century.
Hurricane-force winds – sustained wind
speeds above 74 mph with higher gusts – covered an area 200 miles wide, while
tropical storm wind speeds covered an area 450 miles wide. Rainfall totals have
been as high as a foot.
As the storm drew nearer, New Orleans
Mayor Ray Nagin encouraged
anyone in the city who could leave to do so now. The mayor’s office confirmed
that the city was under a “recommended evacuation,” but officials there could
not say when – or if – the city would face a mandatory evacuation.
The situation in New Orleans is especially dire. Much of the city
lies below sea level, and overwhelming rains combined with a strong storm surge – typical with hurricanes as powerful as Ivan – could easily swamp parts of the
city, which lies between the lower portion of the Mississippi River and two
lakes connected to the Gulf of Mexico.
In Florida, officials had ordered mandatory evacuations in all or
part of 21 counties; voluntary evacuations were under way in all or part of 10
other counties. Gov. Jeb Bush has already declared a state of emergency in
preparation for a possible landfall later this week.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the storm was moving toward the U.S.
coast at 9 mph, and was expected to continue moving in that direction through
Wednesday morning, National Weather Service forecasters said.