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« on: August 19, 2007, 05:10:01 PM »

 Hurricane Dean begins lashing Jamaica

By HOWARD CAMPBELL, Associated Press Writer 33 minutes ago

KINGSTON, Jamaica - The prime minister made a last-minute plea for Jamaicans to abandon their homes Sunday as Hurricane Dean began lashing the island with heavy winds and torrential rains on its destructive and deadly march across the Caribbean. Many residents ignored the call, however, while tourists holed up in resorts with hurricane-proof walls.

Coastal Texas and Mexico also began evacuations to avoid the storm's wrath, with many Texans hoping to avoid the disastrous last-minute exodus before Hurricane Rita in 2005.

Jamaica set up more than 1,000 shelters nationwide in converted schools, churches and the indoor national sports arena, and authorities urged people to take cover from a Category 4 storm that could rake the country with winds of 145 mph and dump up to 20 inches of rain.

But only 47 shelters were occupied as the outer bands of the storm began hitting the island early Sunday, said Cecil Bailey of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management.

"For the last time, I'm asking you to leave or you will be in danger," Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said as the storm loomed offshore. Forecasters said Jamaica, home to 2.7 million people, would take a near-direct hit from Dean, with the eye passing just to the south.

As of 2 p.m. Sunday, the storm was located about 80 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and was traveling west-northwest at 18 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

George Lee, mayor of the Portmore community in St. Catherine Parish just outside of Kingston, said his appeals for people to evacuate their homes went unheeded.

"We have sent out buses twice and there has been no response," he said.

Residents in Port Royal, a community east of the capital of Kingston, also refused to budge.

"Too much crime in Kingston. I'm not leaving my home," resident Paul Lyn said.

Assistant Commissioner of Police Linval Bailey said police units were dispatched to commercial districts in danger of being looted and curfews were imposed until Monday evening. Authorities also began cutting power on the island near midday to prevent damage to the electrical infrastructure.

Many tourists who didn't get flights out of the country evacuated oceanside hotels and took shelter at places like Sandals Whitehouse, a resort that has buildings capable of withstanding a Category 4 hurricane.

"I feel very safe," said Virginia Warren, a tourist from Manchester, N.H., who moved to the resort from the western city of Montego Bay. "It could not be better. ... The food is fantastic. The hurricane is going to come and go but we will still be here."

Trinice Tyler, who was also staying at Sandals Whitehouse, said she would pass the storm "on my knees praying."

"I'm celebrating my 40th birthday today, and it's going to be a birthday to remember," said Tyler, a postal worker from Lake Elsinore, Calif. "I have mixed emotions. It's exciting, but I'm nervous. Am I going to make it home?"

Earlier in the day, fishermen hauled their skiffs inland and giant cruise ships changed their courses to avoid the storm. A local radio station reported that 17 fisherman were stranded on the Middle Keys, small low-lying islands about 90 miles south of Jamaica. The Jamaica Defense Force advised them to break the padlocks off a building owned by the military to seek safety or climb onto the roof, Nationwide News Network reported.

Dean caused widespread damage to small eastern Caribbean islands as a Category 2 storm on Friday, before buffeting the Dominican Republic and Haiti with winds and rain on Saturday. The storm already has caused at least eight deaths in the Caribbean.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the first hurricane of the Atlantic season was projected to reach the most dangerous hurricane classification, Category 5, with winds of 160 mph before crashing into the Cayman Islands on Monday and Mexico's Yucatan peninsula after that. The Mexican mainland or Texas could be hit later.

In the Texas coastal city of Galveston, residents remembered the 2005 Hurricane Rita evacuation, when motorists from the coast ran into residents fleeing Houston, clogging evacuation routes for miles in sweltering heat. State officials say they've worked out the kinks in the system, but many Galveston residents were skeptical.

"I've talked to a lot of people about this," said Chuck Lee, a resident. "They'd rather die in their homes than die in their cars on some highway."

On Saturday, lighted signs along the highways usually reserved for Amber Alerts flashed an ominous message: "HURRICANE FORMING NEAR GULF. KEEP YOUR GAS TANKS FULL."

Playing it safe, NASA shortened the last spacewalk for astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour and ordered the spacecraft to return to Earth on Tuesday a day early fearing the storm might threaten the Houston home of Mission Control.

In the low-lying Caymans, the government ordered a mandatory evacuation by noon Sunday of Little Cayman, the smallest of the territory's three islands. Most tourists had flown out on flights Saturday afternoon, jamming the British territory's international airport.

Tourists also streamed out of resorts on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and formed long lines at the airport to try to fly home. Twelve empty planes had arrived Sunday to move travelers out, said airport spokesman Eduardo Rivadeneira.

Forecasters said Sunday that Dean's eye could come ashore on a sparsely populated stretch of the coast about 100 miles south of Cancun, sparing the resort city that was ravaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The nearest beach town, Tulum, is about 25 miles north of where the hurricane is expected to make landfall.

The Quintana Roo state government has set up 530 storm shelters in schools and other public buildings, with an estimated capacity to hold 73,000 people. Hundreds of people have already been ordered to evacuate from low-lying areas along the coast.

Although Dean was only expected to sweep across Cuba's eastern tip, thousands of people living in low-lying areas of the region were ordered to temporarily seek safer lodging on higher ground either with friends or family or in government shelters.

The hurricane created massive waves and surges high as 20 feet as it passed the Dominican Republic on Saturday, flooding roads and drowning a boy. Strong winds blew down trees in southern towns near the Haitian border but the country was largely spared Dean's wrath.

In Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, at least two people were killed and about 150 homes were destroyed, emergency officials said. In the city of Les Cayes, people fought over Red Cross food supplies.

Hurricane Dean begins lashing Jamaica

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