Ivan inches closer to the U.S. coast; evacuations under way

| Tuesday, September 14, 2004

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.