Hurricane Dean ramps up in strength

Hurricane Dean is expected to grow into a ferocious category-five storm as it passes Jamaica and nears Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and the oil and gas rigs of the Gulf of Mexico after it smashed into several Caribbean islands, the United States National Hurricane Centre said on Friday.

With winds near 230km/h late on Friday, Dean was a category-four storm, the second-highest level on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale and capable of widespread destruction.

The hurricane centre said it was expected to strengthen to category five, with top sustained winds in excess of 249km/h, before plowing directly over Jamaica toward the Gulf, home to one-third of US domestic crude oil and 15% of natural gas production.

Dean roared through the narrow channel between the Lesser Antilles islands of St Lucia and Martinique early on Friday, crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the warm Caribbean Sea.

Its progress was being nervously watched by energy markets, which have been skittish about hurricanes since powerful storms in 2004 and 2005, including Ivan, Katrina and Rita, disrupted oil and gas production. Transocean, Royal Dutch Shell, Murphy Oil and other companies pulled dozens of workers from offshore rigs.

Hurricane warnings were issued for southern areas of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Dean, the first hurricane of what is expected to be an above-average Atlantic season, lifted the roof off the pediatric wing at Victoria Hospital in St Lucia’s capital, Castries, but patients had already been moved, officials said.

Heraldine Rock, an ex-government minister in the former British colony of 170 000 people, said the storm ripped roofs off houses and damaged at least two banana plantations.

“In one village, telephone and power lines are down. They’re strewn all over the road, trees are uprooted and are blocking the roads,” she said.
“In another village, a landslide has been reported, cutting off any access to the airport.”

Deputy Prime Minister Leonard Montoute said at least two people were injured when a tree fell on their home. “I’m told that the coastal areas have taken a severe battering. There’s debris all over Castries in the capital and flood waters on the roads,” he said.

Heading for Gulf

On neighbouring Martinique, an elderly man died of a heart attack during the storm and six people were injured. The hurricane destroyed all the banana plantations, which employ 10 000 of Martinique’s 400 000 residents, and wiped out 70% of the sugarcane farms, said Christian Estrosi, France’s Secretary of State for Overseas Territories.

“In economic terms, the damage is large and even dramatic,” said Estrosi, who planned to travel to Martinique on Saturday to announce emergency aid measures. “We will not leave anybody on the side of the road.”

By 3am GMT, Dean was 1 210km east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and moving west at about 30km/h, the hurricane centre said.

Storms of category three to five, referred to collectively as “major” storms, are generally the most destructive and have included infamous hurricanes like Katrina. Dean’s projected path would put it directly over Jamaica on Sunday and near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula or straight into the Gulf of Mexico through the Yucatan Channel by Tuesday.

If it crosses the Yucatan, it is projected to emerge in the southern Gulf and could disrupt operations in the Cantarell Complex of Mexican oil fields, which is one of the world’s most productive and supplies two-thirds of Mexico’s crude oil output.

Computer models have fluctuated between an eventual landing as far north as Louisiana, which bore the brunt of Rita and Katrina, and Belize, at the southern end of the Yucatan, but began to shift generally more to the south late on Friday.

Forecasters have predicted the six-month 2007 hurricane season would be more active than average with up to 16 named storms. An average year historically has 10 or 11 storms.—Reuters

Additional reporting by Michael Christie in Miami, Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port of Spain, Laure Bretton, Kerstin Gehmlich and Thierry Leveque in Paris

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