Hurricane Gustav kills nearly 70 in Caribbean

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Tropical storm Gustav was blamed yesterday for at least 68 deaths in the Caribbean and US forecasters said it could hit New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico oil fields as a potentially powerful hurricane next week.

As Gustav churned through the Caribbean, tropical storm Hanna formed in the Atlantic Ocean with 40-mph winds. The eighth storm of a busy Atlantic hurricane season was on a track that could threaten the Bahamas and Florida, the US National Hurricane Center said.

Energy companies prepared for Gustav to deliver what could be the hardest hit to the heart of the US Gulf oil patch since the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

Oil prices rose above $120 a barrel in early trade yesterday, adding to gains all week, as Gustav aimed deep into the heavy concentration of oil and natural gas platforms off Louisiana and Texas.

Gustav was 35 miles west-southwest of Kingston, Jamaica, at 11pm EDT, the hurricane centre said. Its top sustained winds were 70 mph, just short of the 74-mph hurricane threshold. Forecasters said it could become a hurricane today.

Forecasters said the storm could intensify rapidly and "it would be no surprise" if Gustav within 72 hours became a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, the most severe on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale.

New Orleans, the Southern US city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina three years ago, remained near the middle of the range of possible landfall locations on the US Gulf Coast.

Louisiana Govenor Bobby Jindal put New Orleans residents on alert for possible evacuations starting today, the third anniversary of Katrina's strike, and issued a precautionary disaster declaration. A state of emergency was declared in neighbouring Mississippi, which was also devastated by Katrina.

Gustav barged ashore as a hurricane in Haiti on Tuesday and its driving rains took at least 59 lives there and eight in the neighbouring Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola.

Officials said the deaths were due mostly to flooding and mudslides in western and southern Haiti.

In Jamaica, shops, post offices and schools shut their doors and authorities ordered non-essential workers to stay at home before Gustav made landfall yesterday afternoon. The storm buffeted the lush, mountainous island with high winds and torrential rains that soaked some sugar cane fields.

Rooftops flew off houses in isolated areas and a 50-year-old man fell to his death after a strong gust of wind blew him out of the tree where he was picking breadfruit as the storm closed in on Jamaica's central Manchester parish.

Gustav is the first serious Atlantic storm since the 2005 hurricane season to threaten New Orleans and the 4,000 US energy platforms in the Gulf.

Katrina and Rita destroyed 124 platforms and severed pipelines when they swept through the Gulf of Mexico as Category 5 storms. Katrina came ashore near New Orleans on 29 August, 2005, as a Category 3 hurricane and flooded the city. It killed 1,500 people along the Gulf Coast.

On its current path, Gustav will threaten the Cayman Islands and western Cuba before entering the Gulf.