Gustav threatens Caymans after swamping Jamaica

Published 6:33 pm Friday, August 29, 2008

Deadly Tropical Storm Gustav drenched Jamaica and menaced the Cayman Islands on Friday, setting off alarm from Cuba to New Orleans — and at gas pumps across the United States.

Gustav ripped off roofs, downed power lines and pounded rain into Jamaica, triggering landslides and flooding but no reported deaths. At least 67 people died earlier in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm could wind up almost anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico, but the currently projected track would carry it to Louisiana — perhaps as a major hurricane — by Tuesday.

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The hurricane center said the storm was centered near Jamaica’s western coast on Friday morning and it was moving toward the west-northwest near 8 mph. Gustav’s maximum sustained winds were near 65 mph with higher gusts.

Forecasters said it could strengthen back into a hurricane before slamming into Grand Cayman on Friday and into the western tip of Cuba Saturday.

In the Cayman Islands, some hotels closed and those that remained open encouraged guests to leave, but officials urged calm. Theresa Foster, one of the owners of the Grand Caymanian Resort, said Gustav didn’t look as threatening as Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed 70 percent of Grand Cayman’s buildings four years ago.

“Whatever was going to blow away has already blown away,” she said.

Jamaica evacuated low-lying areas, closed the capital’s main airport and halted bus service even as people streamed into supermarkets for emergency supplies.

Fears the Gustav could hurt Gulf oil production sent oil prices spiking above US$120 a barrel this week before they settled at US$115.59 on Thursday. They were creeping up again on Friday, jumping past US$116 a gallon.

The Gulf has 4,000 oil rigs and half of America’s refining capacity. Hundreds of offshore workers have already been pulled out and analysts said the storm could send U.S. gas prices back over $4 a gallon.

“You’re going to see increases by 5, 10, 15 cents a gallon,” said Tom Kloza, publisher of the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, New Jersey. “If we have a Katrina-type event, you’re talking about gas prices going up another 30 percent.”

Meanwhile, still well out in the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Hanna was marching westward and forecasters said it might pose a threat to the Bahamas by the middle of next week. It had sustained winds near 50 mph. Little change in strength was expected Friday, but the hurricane center said Hanna could become a hurricane in the next few days.

Forecasters cautioned that the path of Gustav — like that of most hurricanes — remained uncertain.

“It is simply impossible to determine exactly where and when Gustav will make final landfall,” said Richard Knabb of the hurricane center. “The chances of hurricane-force winds within the next five days are essentially the same at each individual location from the Florida Panhandle coast westward through the entire coastline of Louisiana.”

With Hurricane Katrina’s third anniversary falling on Friday, Louisiana wasn’t taking any chances. Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency to lay the groundwork for federal assistance. Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration, and together they put 8,000 National Guard troops on standby.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he would order a mandatory evacuation of the city if forecasters predict a Category-3 strike, or possibly even a Category-2, within 72 hours. Both Jindal and Nagin were meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

At least 59 people died in Haiti from floods, mudslides and falling trees, including 25 around the city of Jacmel, where Gustav first struck land Tuesday. Eight more people were buried when a cliff gave way in the Dominican Republic.