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Dean hammers Jamaica; Yucatan braces

Storm brings floods and damage to the island's south. As Cancun readies shelters, officials say the hurricane may become a Category 5.

August 20, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

caracas, venezuela -- Immense and dangerous Hurricane Dean slammed into Jamaica's southern shore Sunday evening, ripping roofs from buildings, flattening trees and flooding southern coastal areas.

Although there were no early reports of deaths, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said she was "very concerned" about the storm's impact, especially in the eastern parish of St. Thomas, which lost contact with the national disaster preparedness office.

The hurricane, the most powerful Caribbean storm this season, remained on a course that could take it to Mexico's busiest tourist zone, the Yucatan peninsula, by tonight or early Tuesday.

Officials in Cancun said they had prepared shelter space for more than 73,000 people.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Dean may be upgraded to Category 5 -- the most powerful, with sustained winds stronger than 155 mph -- by the time it hits Mexico.

If Dean stays on its current track, chances are slim it will hit the United States directly. Despite that, President Bush has issued an emergency declaration to federal and state disaster agencies.

Hurricane Katrina, one of four Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes during the record-setting season of 2005, unleashed havoc on the U.S. Gulf Coast, including devastating flooding in New Orleans.

Although Dean's eye passed 40 miles south of Kingston, Jamaica's capital, such was its force and size that parts of the coast were lashed with 115-mph winds.

After a plea from Simpson-Miller, thousands of residents abandoned their homes and headed to 1,000 shelters in churches and schools.

The government warned that up to 20 inches of rainfall could bring flash floods. Most of the country was without power Sunday evening. As night fell, normally buzzing Kingston was transformed into a ghost town. The police commissioner had declared a curfew in major cities to limit the possibility of looting.

Before its arrival in Jamaica, the storm caused eight reported deaths in Hispaniola and the Lesser Antilles. Jamaica could take small consolation in the fact that the storm didn't smash it head on.

The Cayman Islands could be next to feel Dean's wrath, and the government there scheduled 15 extra flights over the weekend to evacuate residents and tourists.

Jamaican soldiers were patrolling Kingston and other cities. Jamaica has not experienced a direct hit from a hurricane since Gilbert in 1988. That storm, which was a Category 3 when it came ashore, claimed more than 30 lives and destroyed many properties.

Over the weekend, two deaths were reported in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. A tree fell on a house in Marun, killing one man, and a woman died in a mudslide in the southwest, government officials said. Several hundred homes in Haiti were destroyed by landslides.

Large numbers of tourists were stranded in Jamaica because the island closed its airports late Saturday.

Oil companies, including Shell and Mexico's state-owned Pemex, were evacuating hundreds of employees at drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The space shuttle Endeavour left the International Space Station to return to Earth a day early on the remote chance that staffers at NASA's Mission Control in Houston are forced to evacuate.

Jamaicans rushed to stores Sunday before the storm hit to stock up on water and food. Citizens will be watching how the government performs during and after the storm, as elections are to be held on Aug. 27.

Before the emergency shopping, many Kingston residents spent most of the day watching the waves beating against the sea walls.

One man said that it is something he enjoys doing. "It's beautiful to see the waves that high. You do not see this every day," he said.

In other parts of the city, government agencies charged with managing evacuations from low areas met great resistance from residents, many of whom refused to leave.

As the storm approached, authorities said that at least 17 people were stranded at Pedro Cays, just off the coast of St. Elizabeth, one of Jamaica's southern parishes, which was expected to take a battering. These people had ignored mandatory evacuation orders.

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A Times special correspondent in Kingston contributed to this report.

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