By Jim Loney
MIAMI, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Gustav reached hurricane strength as it swirled through the central Caribbean and bore down on Haiti on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
A hurricane hunter aircraft reported the storm’s top sustained winds were near 80 mph (130 kph) — above hurricane strength of 74 mph (120 kph) — as it approached southwest Haiti.
Gustav threatened the impoverished Caribbean nation of 9 million with up to 25 inches (64 cm) of rain in some areas, which could trigger deadly floods and mudslides.
Oil prices rose as Gustav stirred concerns about disruptions to U.S. oil and gas output in the Gulf of Mexico and served as another reminder that this storm season is shaping up to be busier than usual. At least one computer forecasting model showed the storm could enter the Gulf.
A hurricane warning was issued for Haiti west of Barahona, and Dominican President Leonel Fernandez declared a partial state of emergency as the storm began dousing his country’s southern coast.
Gustav was about 130 miles (210 km) south-southeast of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, at 2 a.m. (0600 GMT and was moving toward the northwest at near 12 mph (19 kph), the Miami-based hurricane center said.
Haiti is still recovering from Tropical Storm Fay, the remnants of which were causing flooding across the U.S. southeastern states. Fay may have killed more than 50 people in Haiti last week, including dozens missing after floodwaters swept a bus down a river.
Forecasters said Gustav could produce rainfall of 5 to 7 inches (13-18 cm) over Hispaniola, with the possibility of up to 25 inches (38-64 cm) in isolated areas.
"These intense rains may produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," the hurricane center said.
Haiti is vulnerable to devastating floods because its hillsides have been stripped of trees by people desperate for charcoal to be used as cooking fuel. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne was blamed for flooding that killed some 3,000 people and spring floods killed another 2,000 earlier that year.
The official forecast called for Gustav to move to the northwest across Haiti and then south of central Cuba, possibly toward the Gulf of Mexico, but the computer models used to predict the future path of hurricanes disagreed.
Energy markets have been riveted by the movements of tropical storms and hurricanes since the devastating Atlantic hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, when a series of storms disrupted oil and gas production.
The 2005 season saw Katrina, the costliest hurricane in U.S. history with some $80 billion in damage, as well as Rita and Wilma, all of which tore through the Gulf. (Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Michael Christie in Miami and Manuel Jimenez in Dominican Republic, Editing by Chris Wilson)