Jamaica on alert ahead of hurricane


The Caribbean nation of Jamaica is on high alert ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Deane, the first major storm to hit the region this year.

Jamaicans headed inland and tourists fled the country hours before a large and powerful Hurricane Dean appeared poised to make a direct hit on the island Sunday after a deadly and destructive march across the eastern Caribbean.

Hurricane Deane as seen from the International Space Station
Hurricane Deane as seen from the International Space Station

The storm, the first hurricane of the Atlantic season, rolled through the Caribbean to the south of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where heavy rain and surging seas caused flooding yesterday in coastal areas.

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said late yesterday the country was confronting a national emergency and urged people in flood-prone areas to head for shelter.

"Do not wait for the last minute to make the decision to move from where you are," Simpson Miller said. "Decide now and begin to make arrangements to leave now."Thousands of alarmed tourists were not waiting. They jammed Caribbean airports for flights out of Hurricane Dean's path as the fierce storm that has claimed at least six lives began sweeping past the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Authorities in the eastern Caribbean were assessing the damage after Dean hit on Friday as a Category 2 storm with winds of near 100 mph.

In the island of Martinique, an overseas department of France, authorities yesterday confirmed two deaths, including a woman who apparently fell and drowned in her home.

Officials there estimated that up to $270 million is needed to repair infrastructure. Agriculture Minister Louis Daniel Berthome said all banana crops were destroyed.

Hurricane warnings were also in effect for the Cayman islands and parts of Haiti and a tropical storm warning was issued for parts of Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Officials in the Dominican Republic, where the hurricane sent 18-foot waves crashing onto southern beaches, said a 16-year-old Haitian was swept out to sea.

That brought to at least four the number of victims since Dean roared into the Caribbean between the Lesser Antilles islands of Martinique and St. Lucia on Friday.

Dean was moving west-northwest at 18 mph (30 kph) and was being watched closely by energy markets, which have been skittish since a series of storms in 2004 and 2005 toppled Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, flooded refineries and cut pipelines.

The latest computer models show Dean tracking just to the south of Jamaica . That could mean its most damaging winds in the northeast quadrant could slam Kingston.

It is expected to pass the Cayman Islands, a wealthy British territory and financial center, and hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula early in the week.

After that it was likely to aim for the northern Mexico coast rather than threatening the most critical US offshore oil and gas production areas further north.

Mexican authorities have began evacuations from the Caribbean coast, while U.S. President George W. Bush issued an emergency declaration for Texas to free up federal help and funds.

Cuba has declared a hurricane emergency for the southeast provinces of Guantanamo, Granma and Santiago de Cuba, and westernmost province of Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth, evacuating tens of thousands of people from low lying areas in the four provinces and along the entire southern coast.

Dean's destructive core passed south of Haiti's southern coast, and there were no immediate reports of emergencies. But tropical cyclones frequently trigger flash floods and mudslides in the deforested, poverty-stricken country of 8 million.