Tropical storm Gustav, perched off the coast of Jamaica as of Thursday afternoon, is expected to strengthen into a hurricane by Thursday night. It already struck Haiti and the Dominican Republic as a hurricane earlier this week, killing at least 23 people. Its projected path will take it to landfall somewhere along the U.S. gulf coast -- between the Florida panhandle and Texas -- by Tuesday.
"It is expected that Gustav will be a powerful hurricane as it moves into the southern Gulf of Mexico," The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Thursday.
Gustav is the first storm to threaten New Orleans since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the city three years ago, overwhelming levees, flooding 80 percent of the city and killing nearly 1500 people.
"This will be the first real test of the federally rebuilt levees, so we'll see what happens," New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said in an interview with the Online NewsHour at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Nagin returned early from the convention to help the city prepare. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he was prepared to cancel his plans to speak at the Republican convention in Minneapolis next Tuesday.
"My first responsibility is here in Louisiana," he said at a news conference, according to the New York Times. "As long as the hurricane has Louisiana in its sights, this is where I'll be. We're still hopeful that the storm will miss us, but we've got to prepare as if it's coming our way."
Jindal put residents on alert for possible evacuations over the weekend. Unlike in 2005, the city will have no "shelters of last resort" like the Superdome. Instead, everyone will be evacuated.
"Anything above a category 2 storm, we're evacuating everybody out of the city," Nagin told the NewsHour. "We have buses, trains, planes lined up to accomplish that."
Jindal said that there are 3,000 National Guardsman ready to help in emergency efforts, and 700 buses on standby to evacuate up to 35,000 people.
Meanwhile, oil companies began evacuating their employees from rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and fears that the hurricane could strike the area sent oil prices past $120 a barrel on Thursday.