A ferociously powerful Hurricane Gustav roared across western Cuba with 150-mile-per-hour (240 km per hour) winds on Saturday, smashing buildings and flattening fields as it surged toward the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the evacuation of the city ahead of "the mother of all storms" as of Sunday morning, a little over three years after Hurricane Katrina swamped the birthplace of jazz, killing hundreds and exposing deep poverty and a lack of preparedness.
Highways around New Orleans were jammed and hundreds of people, some still carrying emotional scars from the disaster in 2005, lined up to board buses as the authorities urged residents to leave ahead of the approaching storm.
A Category 4 storm that forecasters said could strengthen to a catastrophic Category 5 over the warm Gulf, Gustav knocked over trees, damaged buildings and demolished banana plantations as it crossed Cuba at 15 mph (24 kph).
No deaths had been reported. On the Isle of Youth 40 miles (64 km) off the coast, news reports said boats had been washed into the city of Nueva Gerona.
Energy companies shut down three-quarters of oil production in the Gulf and prepared for the strongest storm in three years to hit an area that produces a quarter of U.S. crude and 15 percent of its natural gas.
Crude oil prices could soar if Tropical Storm Hanna, now in the Atlantic, follows Gustav into the offshore production areas, energy analysts said.
Forecasters said the hurricane was likely to approach the central Louisiana coast just west of New Orleans as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity by late Monday or early Tuesday.
Katrina was a Category 3 when its 28-foot (8.5 metre) storm surge burst the levees protecting New Orleans on August 29, 2005, flooding 80 percent of the city. New Orleans degenerated into chaos as stranded storm victims waited days for government rescue and $80 billion in damages made Katrina the costliest U.S. natural disaster, Reuters reported.