Gustav kills 11 in Caribbean


Gustav swirled toward Cuba today after triggering flooding and landslides that killed at least 11 people in the Caribbean. Its track pointed toward the U.S. Gulf coast, including Louisana where Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc three years ago.

Oil prices jumped above US$119 a barrel as workers began to evacuate from the offshore rigs responsible for a quarter of U.S. crude production.

"We know it's going to head into the Gulf. After that, we're not sure where it's heading," said Rebecca Waddington, a meteorologist at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center. "For that reason, everyone in Gulf needs to be monitoring the storm. At that point, we're expecting it to be a Category — hurricane."

Today, Gustav was moving off of Haiti's southwestern peninsula into the waters between Cuba and Jamaica. Its tentative track pointed directly at the Cayman Islands, an offshore banking center where residents boarded up homes and stocked up on emergency supplies in preparation for a possible direct hit Friday.

Friday is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's strike on Louisiana and Mississippi, and Gustav's tentative track raised the possibility of a Labor Day landfall there. But the average error in five-day forecasts is about 310 miles (500 kms) in either direction, meaning the likeliest targets could be anywhere from south Texas to the Florida panhandle.

New Orleans officials began planning for possible evacuations, and urged people who might need help in the event of an evacuation to call an emergency information number. Mississippi Emergency Management Director Mike Womack advised people along the coast to prepare.

Gustav is raising concern particularly because there are few surrounding wind currents capable of shearing off the top of the storm and diminishing its power, the hurricane center said. "Combined with the deep warm waters, rapid intensification could occur in a couple of days."

Gustav diminished to a tropical storm over Haiti but was still dumping heavy rains as it moved west-northwest at 5 mph (7 kph), and forecasters said it could regain hurricane strength soon. The storm was centered about 110 miles west of Port-au-Prince and 125 miles southeast of Guantanamo.

Gustav's toll was becoming clearer today on the island of Hispaniola, where thousands were evacuated or fled their homes. At least three people were confirmed dead in Haiti, including a young girl swept off a bridge by flood waters and a man killed in a landslide, said civil protection director Marie Alta.

Eight people, including two infants, died in a landslide in the Dominican Republic.

"They were all members of a family that had taken shelter since Tropical Storm Fay and left to go home because they thought the danger had passed," said Luis Luna Paulino, director of the civil defense agency.

A hurricane warning was in effect for parts of Cuba including the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay. "My instinct is it will be a really wet night," base spokesman Bruce Lloyd said.

Gustav was already bringing downpours to eastern Cuba, prompting some evacuations in Holguin province, and Fidel Castro pledged in an essay that "no one will be forgotten" by the government.

The government of the Cayman Islands ordered people to secure loose materials in their yards to prevent them from becoming missiles in high winds, and told them to stock up on food, medicine and fuel for generators.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC began evacuating some 300 workers from offshore rigs, and other companies pulled out non-essential personnel. Any damage to the oil infrastructure or Gulf Coast refineries could send U.S. pump prices spiking, possibly before the busy Labor Day weekend.

"A bad storm churning in the Gulf could be a nightmare scenario," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago. "We might see oil prices spike $5 to $8 if it really rips into platforms."

Gustav roared ashore Tuesday near the southern Haitian city of Jacmel with top winds near 90 mph (145 kph), toppling palm trees and flooding the city's Victorian wooden buildings.

Flooding also was reported in coastal Les Cayes, where U.N. peacekeepers used tear gas to disperse demonstrators throwing rocks in a protest against rising food prices in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Haiti has seen deadly food riots, and could be in for more if Gustav seriously damages crops.

Southern Haiti is prone to devastating floods because its mountainous terrain has been stripped of trees for farming.

In the Haitian capital, the chocolate waters of a river spilled over its banks, lapping at shacks in the Cite Soleil slum. Residents pushed bicycles and balanced boxes of belongings on their heads as they sought higher ground.

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