CARACAS, Venezuela – Immense and dangerous Hurricane Dean slammed into Jamaica’s southern shore Sunday evening, ripping roofs from buildings, flattening trees and flooding 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 about the eastern parish of St. Thomas, with which the national disaster preparedness office lost contact.
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 late today 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 might be upgraded to Category 5 – the most powerful, with winds stronger than 155 mph – by the time it hits Mexico. If Dean stays on its current track, chances are slim the storm will reach the United States. Despite that, President Bush has issued an emergency declaration to federal and state disaster agencies.
The last Category 5 hurricane was Katrina, which unleashed havoc on the U.S. Gulf Coast in September 2005.
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 Miller, thousands of residents abandoned their homes and headed to shelters.
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, 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 here, the storm caused a reported eight 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 Category 3 storm killed more than 30 and destroyed many properties.