Hurricane Dean churned across the Caribbean yesterday, heading directly for the dirt-poor island of Hispaniola, Jamaica and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
At the dark eye of the storm, winds reached 150mph. Forecasters predicted that the first hurricane of the season could turn into a Category Five monster over the coming 72 hours, causing widespread loss of life.
The gathering storm threatens some of the poorest communities in the world. As they tried to wait out the weather yesterday, many were huddled in flimsy corrugated shacks facing grave danger from flying debris and water surges.
Hurricane Dean was also having an impact in orbit, with Nasa preparing to bring home Space Shuttle Endeavour a day early. If the hurricane enters the Gulf of Mexico as forecast, it will force the evacuation of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the home of Mission Control. In readiness, two astronauts floated out of the international space station yesterday for what could be their final walk.
Overnight, Dean skirted the islands of St Lucia, Martinique and Dominica, causing floods and killing at least three people. There were fears that Jamaica and the Cayman Islands could also be devastated, with both fortifying themselves in preparation for the unwelcome arrival of the hurricane.
Alerts were issued along the coast of Haiti, but there was little on offer to assist in a mass evacuation.
"Tell me, where am I going to go?" Wilden Pierre, 20, said outside his shed, a hodgepodge of tin perched over a riverbed in the hills above Port-au-Prince. "I have no place to go – I have no money."
When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit the country three years ago, more than 2,000 people were killed by the winds and extensive flooding. The bodies of many were never recovered.
In Jamaica – where a direct hit is predicted today – the Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, ordered shelters to be opened across the country and said that campaigning for the elections, which are planned for 27 August, should end.
As in New Orleans two years ago, when hurricane parties went on all night on Bourbon Street as the storm approached, many people were taking a wait-and-see attitude. This was especially true of the capital, Kingston, where there was no rush to board up homes or stockpile food or petrol.
"I have to see it first before I believe in it," Mitch Landell, 28, a street seller on Half-Way Tree Road in Kingston, told the Associated Press.
At one point yesterday winds reached 150 mph and the hurricane's central core was predicted to pass just south of Haiti, with the rest of the billowing storm trailing torrential rain and floods in its wake.
The path a hurricane takes is very difficult to predict even with the most sophisticated storm-surge models. Weather systems in the upper atmosphere hundreds of miles away steer hurricanes in different directions.
The margin of error one day out is 85 miles in either direction. The core of Hurricane Dean seems certain to strike or come dangerously close to Jamaica and the tiny Caymans today and tomorrow. If it does then Cancun, Cozumel and neighbouring areas on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula could be in grave danger.
After that, the Gulf of Mexico's 4,000 oil rigs could present Dean with its next target. "Right now everybody is on high alert," said Kerry-Ann Morris, spokeswoman for the Office of Disaster and Preparedness Emergency Management in Jamaica.
"We are prepared for the worst. At the moment, things do not look very good,'' said Patricia Ebanks, a spokesman for the Cayman Islands government.