Jamaicans head for the hills as force-five hurricane nears

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The Independent US

Jamaicans fled inland and the government closed airports as a large and powerful Hurricane Dean seemed poised to make a near-direct hit last night after a destructive march through the eastern Caribbean.

Islanders raced to secure their homes and to stockpile emergency supplies as the storm bore down late yesterday afternoon - the biggest storm so far in what meteorologists have predicted will be another above-average hurricane season.

Tourists fled Jamaica on Saturday night ahead of the airport shutdown, and evacuations were also being planned in the nearby British territory of the Cayman Islands.

Dean has been battering the region with winds of up to 145 miles an hour, and threatens to dump 20 inches of rain on some parts of Jamaica. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, thousands of people fled their homes and turned public buildings into makeshift shelters. At least six people were reported to have been killed in the two countries, including a woman and her seven-year-old son who died when a landslide buried their home in Dominica, and a boy who was swept out to sea amid surging waves in the capital, Santa Domingo. A man in St Lucia was reported dead after trying to rescue a cow drowning in a swollen river.

The French territory of Matinique is estimated to have suffered about $300m (£150m) of damage to property, and the cost of the hurricane across the region could ultimately be several times higher, insurance companies said.

The Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, said the country was confronting a national emergency. She ordered businesses to close until tomorrow and shut the airports late on Saturday, urging people in flood-prone areas to head to higher ground. "Do not wait for the last minute to make the decision to move from where you are," she said. "Decide now and begin to make arrangements to leave now."

Campaigning for next week's elections was halted, a curfew was imposed and locals reported frenzied scenes as shoppers battled to find petrol, food and batteries before the shutdown. The Jamaican power company was planning last night to shut off electricity in order to limit damage to the national grid.

Not everyone was heeding advice to evacuate low-lying areas, however. "We are going nowhere," Byron Thompson said in the former buccaneer town of Port Royal near the capital, Kingston. "In fact, if you come by here later today you will see me drinking rum over in that bar with some friends."

Flash floods and mudslides are major threats in Jamaica, according to the US national hurricane centre in Miami, Florida, to where many of the tourists forced to cut short their holidays have been evacuated. It predicted that Dean could briefly reach category five status before it makes landfall in Mexico - taking it into the most severe category in the Saffir-Simpson scale.

The centre's models forecast Dean would pass just south of Jamaica and that some of its most damaging winds - in the north-east quadrant of the storm - could hit Kingston. It was then expected to pass the Cayman Islands, hit Mexico's Yucatan and go on to the central Mexican coast. Mexican authorities were also beginning evacuations from their Caribbean coastal areas yesterday. In the Cayman Islands, an extra 15 flights were immediately booked up and queues at the airport stretched out of the terminal building. Coastal evacuations were also underway in Cuba.

Astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavour cut short a spacewalk to return to earth tomorrow, a day early, in case Dean veers off course and disrupts mission control in Houston, Texas.