Omar strengthens into hurricane in Caribbean

Omar hit hurricane strength on Tuesday as it headed toward Puerto Rico and the small islands of the north-eastern Caribbean, the United States National Hurricane Centre said.

Omar, which grew quickly from a tropical storm, had sustained winds of 120km/h as it churned about 505km south-west of Puerto Rico, the Miami-based hurricane centre said.

In Venezuela, the storm stopped tankers from loading crude oil at refinery facilities and knocked out power at the Opec nation’s 200 000 barrel-per-day Puerto La Cruz refinery, officials said.

Omar, the 15th tropical storm of the Atlantic season, formed north of The Netherlands Antilles island of Curacao and revved up over warm Caribbean waters.
It could be a category-two hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, with winds of at least 155km/h, by the time it reaches the northern islands, forecasters said.

Hurricane alerts were posted for Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands and other islands including Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, St Kitts and Nevis, Saba, St Eustatius, St Martin and St Barthelemy.

On Curacao, a small tourist island north of Venezuela, trees and lampposts were knocked down, power was out in some areas and stores in the capital closed due to flooding. Residents reported seeing waves up to five metres high.

There were no reports of deaths or injuries and local meteorologists said the weather was set to improve.

Omar was moving on a track that would take it over the northern Leeward Islands on Wednesday night.

Forecasters said it could produce up to 51cm of rain, which could trigger life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.

Depression off Honduras
While Omar menaced Puerto Rico, a tropical depression developed just off Honduras.

The 16th depression of the season, which will be called Paloma if it strengthens into a tropical storm, was expected to come ashore somewhere between eastern Honduras and Belize.

Forecasters expected it to become a tropical storm but not a hurricane before landfall.
It does not appear to present a threat to the US mainland or the Gulf of Mexico oil fields.

“There is some potential for strengthening as long as the center remains over water,” the hurricane centre said. “Although given the lack of organisation, rapid development is not likely.”

Former tropical storm Nana, which developed on Sunday between the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean, dissipated on Tuesday after being torn apart by atmospheric winds.

The 2008 hurricane season has been busy and has six more weeks to go before it officially ends on November 30. An average season spawns 10 storms, of which six grow into hurricanes.

So far this year, Hurricane Gustav slammed ashore near New Orleans, the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Ike hit Houston. Both threatened the oil rigs off the US Gulf Coast that supply a quarter of US domestic oil.

In Haiti, more than 800 people were killed after the impoverished Caribbean nation was swamped by Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. Cuba suffered $5-billion in damage after being raked by Gustav and Ike. - Reuters

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