KINGSTON (Reuters) - Fiercely powerful Hurricane Dean strafed Jamaica’s southern coast on Sunday, littering the capital of Kingston with fallen trees and windblown roofs after killing six people earlier on its run through the Caribbean.
The hurricane was an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm, the second-highest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, and could strengthen into a rare and potentially catastrophic Category 5 near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Jamaica’s government declared a 48-hour curfew and the power company switched off electricity as the wind began to howl and pounding waves battered the southern coast.
Heavy rain pelted Kingston and streets were blocked by toppled trees and utility poles. Dean ripped off several roofs and a man was missing after falling trees tore into his house.
“The dead center of the eye is south of Jamaica by a few miles (km). But the center is close enough to Jamaica that they are likely getting hurricane-force winds along the southern coast,” said Richard Knabb, a storm expert at the hurricane center.
Mudslides were reported in several parts of the country.
The government had urged residents to go to shelters. Some residents of one low-lying seaport town close to Kingston refused to leave.
“We are going nowhere,” Byron Thompson said in the former buccaneer town of Port Royal, settled by pirate Henry Morgan in the 16th century. “In fact, if you come by here later today you will see me drinking rum over in that bar with some friends.”
Earlier in the day, tempers flared in shops where Jamaicans scrambled to stock up on batteries, flashlights, canned tuna, rice and water.
Campaigning for August 27 elections was halted.
Dean packed sustained winds of 145 miles per hour (230 kph) and its eye was about 50 miles (80 km) south of Kingston at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).
Storm warnings were also in effect for the Cayman Islands, Mexico’s Yucatan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Belize. The latest computer tracking models forecast Dean would spare the U.S. Gulf Coast but slam into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, cross the Bay of Campeche and then hit central Mexico.
Thousands of frightened tourists on Mexico’s Caribbean coast stood in line for hours at airports to flee before Dean’s expected arrival on Monday.
One man was killed in Haiti when a tree fell on a house in Murun in the southwestern province of Grand Anse, and a woman died in a mudslide in the south, civil defence officials said.
That brought to at least six the number killed by Dean since it roared between the Lesser Antilles islands of Martinique and St. Lucia on Friday as the first hurricane of what is expected to be an active 2007 Atlantic storm season.
Landslides also destroyed several hundred houses in southern Haiti, damaged crops and injured 10 people but there were no reports of further deaths, said Alta Jean-Baptiste, the Civil Protection director in the country of 8 million.
Dean was moving west at 20 mph (32 kph) and was being watched closely by energy markets, which have been nervous since a series of storms in 2004 and 2005 toppled Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, flooded refineries and cut pipelines.
Mexico’s Pemex oil company started to evacuate 13,360 workers from its Gulf rigs ahead of Dean’s arrival there.
Dean was expected to hit the Yucatan Peninsula early in the week and then smack into the central Mexican coast.
The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour hastily departed the orbiting International Space Station in order to land back on Earth a day ahead of schedule in case the storm forced NASA to evacuate its mission control center in Houston.
Airlines added flights to ferry tourists from the Caymans. Hoteliers on the famed Seven Mile Beach laid out sandbags, cut down coconuts to keep them from becoming windborne missiles and moved guests and furniture to safer midlevel floors.
Category 5 hurricanes are rare but in 2005 there were four, including Katrina, reinforcing research that suggests global warming may increase the strength of tropical cyclones.
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Marc Frank in Havana, Michael Christie and Tom Brown in Miami, Carlos Barria and Carole Beckford in Kingston, Manuel Jimenez in the Santo Domingo, Shurna Robbins and Alan Markoff in George Town and Anna Willard in Paris
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