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Tourists flee Hurricane Dean

Airports are packed in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, where the storm is expected to hit today and Monday.

August 19, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

SANTO DOMINGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — Alarmed tourists jammed Caribbean airports for flights out of Hurricane Dean's path Saturday as the monster storm began sweeping past the Dominican Republic and Haiti and threatened to engulf Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

In Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, which stand directly in Dean's path, fear gripped many islanders and tourists alike.

Bracing for the storm to hit today, Jamaica began evacuating people to more than 1,000 shelters nationwide. People jammed supermarkets and hardware stores in the capital, Kingston, to stock up, and shop owners hammered wood over windows at malls in the city.

Before dawn, tourists began lining up outside the airport in Montego Bay in western Jamaica to book flights out. The storm was expected to bring 155-mph winds and as much as 20 inches of rain.

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller called for a halt to campaigning for the Aug. 27 general elections.

Farther west in the low-lying Cayman Islands, lines of tourists snaked out of the international airport terminal and onto a lawn. Cayman Airways added 15 flights to Florida, and they were quickly sold out. The islands were expected to take a direct hit Monday. The government ordered a mandatory evacuation by noon today of Little Cayman, the smallest of the three islands.

In Haiti, the government issued radio alerts for people in the mountains and coastal areas. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne brushed the impoverished and heavily deforested country, triggering massive floods that killed 1,900 people and left 900 others missing.

Early today Dean was centered about 295 miles east-southeast of Kingston and 155 miles south-southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was moving west-northwest at 17 mph and had maximum sustained winds near 150 mph, close to the threshold that would make it a Category 5 hurricane.

Forecasters said it was too soon to say whether Dean, the first hurricane of the Atlantic season, would strike the U.S.

However, worried the storm could disrupt operations at Mission Control in Houston, NASA shortened the last spacewalk for astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour and ordered the spacecraft to return to Earth a day early on Tuesday.

And President Bush declared an unusual "pre-landfall emergency" in Texas. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the American Red Cross, and other agencies and aid groups to begin preparations before the storm hits, said a White House spokesman who briefed reporters in Crawford, Texas, where the president is on vacation.

The move is a direct result of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The spokesman said administration officials now contact state authorities before major storms hit to coordinate emergency response.

In the eastern Caribbean, Dean delivered a potentially fatal blow to a once-vibrant banana industry on three tiny islands, authorities said Saturday.

In St. Lucia and Martinique, two adjacent islands that caught the brunt of Dean's 100-mph winds Friday, authorities said the entire harvest was ruined by flooding or toppled trees. The storm also battered the banana industry in nearby Dominica.

The storm was expected to clip Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and enter the Gulf of Mexico by Tuesday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Authorities were evacuating tourists and residents from low-lying Holbox Island north of Cancun.

In Cuba, the government said it was evacuating 50,000 people from three provinces.

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