Tourists flee Jamaica

KINGSTON, Jamaica &

Tropical Storm Gustav surged toward hurricane force today as it drove toward Jamaica and aimed for the Cayman islands, prompting evacuations of tourists and offshore oil workers. In its wake, impoverished Haitians scrambled for food. Meanwhile, New Orleans kept nervous watch, three years after Katrina's destruction.

Gustav &

the cause of flooding and mudslides that killed 23 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic &

was nearly stationary about 80 miles east of Jamaica's low-lying capital, but it was expected to run west-southwest later in the day, very close to the shore.

Its top sustained winds were just below hurricane strength at about 70 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Also today, Tropical Storm Hanna formed in the Atlantic, northeast of the northern Leeward Islands. It was too early to predict whether Hanna will threaten the United States, but Gustav was already causing jitters from Mexico's Cancun resort to the Florida panhandle. Gustav was projected to become a major Category — hurricane over warm and deep Gulf waters, sending oil prices jumping above $120 a barrel today on fears of production slowdowns.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC has evacuated nearly 400 people and said it will pull out another 270 today, affecting production.

BP PLC also removed personnel from the region that produces about a quarter of U.S. crude and much of its natural gas. Transocean, the world's biggest offshore drilling contractor, is suspending operations at all of its rigs and pulling nearly 1,600 people out of the Gulf.

Some models showed Gustav taking a path toward Louisiana and other Gulf states devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago.

Jamaican authorities urged people in rural areas to seek shelter, but businesses remained open early today in Kingston, where a steady drizzle was falling from dark clouds.

Emergency officials opened shelters and sent relief supplies to flood-prone areas.

Gustav hit Haiti as a hurricane on Tuesday, causing floods and landslides that killed 15 people on Haiti's deforested southern peninsula, where it dumped 12 inches or more of rain. A landslide buried eight people, including a mother and six of her children, in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Gustav's projected track pointed directly at the Cayman Islands, an offshore banking center where residents boarded up homes and stocked up on emergency supplies.

Forecasters said Gustav might slip between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the western tip of Cuba on Sunday, then March toward a Tuesday collision with the U.S. Gulf Coast &

anywhere from south Texas to the Florida panhandle.

"We know it's going to head into the Gulf. After that, we're not sure," said meteorologist Rebecca Waddington at the National Hurricane Center. "For that reason, everyone in the Gulf needs to be monitoring the storm."

New Orleans began planning a possible mandatory evacuation, hoping to prevent the chaos it saw after Hurricane Katrina struck three years ago Friday. Mayor Ray Nagin left the Democratic National Convention in Denver to help the city prepare.

Any damage to the Gulf oil infrastructure could send U.S. gasoline prices spiking.

"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."

Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were still getting heavy rain today, and rising waters damaged many homes.

In the low-lying Cayman Islands, where Gustav is expected to hit Friday, tourists flocked to the airport to get out before the storm.

Stacey McLaughlan of Albany, New York, said she and her husband were told to leave their resort by noon today or prepare to move to a public shelter.

Cayman Airways pilot Chris Witt says a lot of evacuation flights are planned for today, but McLaughlan said she and her husband had to pay an extra $1,000 to get out because their airline refused to bring in a plane to return them to the U.S.

Finding affordable food was an immediate priority for many in Haiti. Jean Ramando, an 18-year-old banana grower, said winds tore down a dozen of his family's banana trees, so bushels of 60 bananas they once sold to Port-au-Prince markets for 135 gourdes ($3.55) would have to be moved at prices as high as 300 gourdes ($7.80).

"The wind blew them down quickly so we need to make some money quickly," he said as he carried bushels through floodwaters.

In the Dominican Republic, friends and relatives buried a mother and six of her seven children, smothered when a landslide crushed their tin-roofed shack.

Marcelina Feliz, 32, was found hugging the body of her smallest child, rescue officials said. A neighbor was also killed.

"I don't know how I can live now, because none of my family is left," said Marino Borges, her husband and father of several of her children.

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