By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008 5:20 PM
As the storm formerly known as Hurricane Gustav dumped rain on the lower Mississippi Valley today, forecasters were anxiously watching a conga line of would-be hurricanes that snaked across the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa.
The latest tropical storms -- Hanna, Ike and Josephine -- were predicted to strengthen in the coming days, but their ultimate destinations remained up in the air.
Today Hanna pounded Haiti, the Dominican Republic and parts of the Bahamas with torrential rains and 60 mph winds, unleashing floods and mudslides that killed more than two dozen people across Haiti. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Hanna is "getting larger" as it edges northward and "could become a hurricane tomorrow." In its latest advisory, the hurricane center said Hanna was beginning to move north toward the southeastern U.S. coast.
On its current path (which could change), Hanna is expected to slam into the coast of South Carolina by 8 a.m. Saturday, and residents of the southeastern United States were being urged to monitor its progress. It then could meander up the Atlantic coast.
Officials from Georgia and the Carolinas considered whether to order evacuations for the roughly 1 million people who live between Savannah, Ga., and Wilmington, N.C., the Associated Press reported. Some residents were not waiting, opting to book hotel rooms away from the coast. Among other preparations, U.S. Air Force bases in North Carolina sent planes to Ohio, high schools in South Carolina rescheduled football games, the state's National Guard moved up weekend exercises by two days, and the Marines at Parris Island, S.C., moved their weekly recruit graduation up a day to Thursday, AP reported.
Looking ahead, forecasters were especially concerned about the next storm in line, Ike, which became a hurricane late this afternoon. About 670 miles east-northeast of the Leeward Islands as of late morning, Ike could become a Category 2 hurricane by early next week, threatening Caribbean islands with a new onslaught of rain and winds up to 110 mph.
Although it is too soon to tell where Ike might go, its current projected path raises the prospect that it could eventually squeeze into the Gulf of Mexico, as Hurricane Gustav did last week before striking the Louisiana coast Monday.
Of less concern at present is Tropical Storm Josephine, now in the eastern Atlantic and packing maximum sustained winds of 65 mph. Although it has grown a little stronger lately, it appears likely to weaken Friday and could end up petering out in the central Atlantic.
Meanwhile, Gustav, which slammed ashore as a Category 2 hurricane, was drifting north over the lower Mississippi Valley today as a tropical depression with 20 mph winds. But it continued to dump heavy rains over much of Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri, the southern half of Mississippi and parts of northeastern Texas and eastern Oklahoma.
The National Weather Service issued flood watches and warnings for much of the lower Mississippi Valley and a tornado watch for central Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi.
The Weather Service has predicted that 14 to 18 tropical storms would form during the Atlantic hurricane season from June through November, seven to 10 of them hurricanes, with three to six of those classified as "major hurricanes." The service said there was an 85 percent probability that this would be "an above-normal hurricane season" compared with the historical average of 10 named tropical storms.
Indeed, that average seems almost certain to be exceeded, as Josephine is already the 10th tropical storm of the season.
This was particularly unwelcome news in Haiti, where more than 100 people have been reported killed in the three storms that have struck Hispaniola so far. The latest, Hanna, came as the country was still recovering from the blows of Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Fay in the past two weeks.
Especially hard hit by Hanna was the low-lying port of Gonaives on Haiti's western coast, where a dozen deaths were reported and a number of people were stranded on their rooftops by rising floodwaters.
"This is a catastrophe," Haitian Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime told a radio station from Gonaives, Reuters news agency reported. "It's really a major disaster. . . . There are a lot of people who have been on top of the roofs of their homes over 24 hours now. They have no water, no food, and we can't even help them."
Iris Norsil, 20, who managed to flee Gonaives, told the Associated Press that people on rooftops "are screaming for help."
As the floodwaters rose, a U.N. aid convoy and another convoy carrying Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis were forced to abandon efforts to drive into the city, AP reported.
"The situation is as bad as it can be," Vadre Louis, a U.N. official in Gonaives, told the agency. "The wind is ripping up trees. Houses are flooded with water. Cars can't drive on the street. You can't rescue anyone, wherever they may be."
Haiti is especially vulnerable to flooding and mudslides because many of its hills have been stripped of their forest cover as Haitian peasants have cleared land for agriculture and cut down trees to use as fuel for cooking.