Tropical Storm Ernesto gains strength over central Caribbean, heads toward Jamaica |

Tropical Storm Ernesto gains strength over central Caribbean, heads toward Jamaica

Daily Staff Report

KINGSTON, Jamaica – Tropical Storm Ernesto gathered strength as it steamed through the central Caribbean toward Jamaica on Saturday and threatened to enter the Gulf of Mexico as the first hurricane of the 2006 Atlantic season.Ernesto could grow into a Category 3 hurricane by Thursday, menacing a broad swath of the Gulf Coast including hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami forecast. Category 3 hurricane Katrina struck the city a year ago Tuesday.”It looks likely that it will hit (the U.S.), but it’s way too soon to say where” or how much impact it would have, said John Cangialosi, a meteorologist with the hurricane center. “At this point, keep a close eye, anyone in the Gulf Coast, and just keep monitoring this.”Standing in the hurricane’s path, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba issued hurricane watches as the storm’s winds grew to 60 mph late Saturday. It was forecast to become a hurricane as early as Sunday evening while it passes near Jamaica, Cangialosi said.Ernesto’s course would bring it over Jamaica by Sunday afternoon, dumping 4 to 8 inches of rain on the island with up to a foot possible in some areas, the hurricane center said. Fisherman were warned to return to shore – with tides of up to 3 feet above normal expected.Similar rainfall and tides were possible for Haiti.Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller put the country’s security forces on alert and said at a press conference Saturday that all the island’s shelters were open.”Ensure that the children are not left alone and make it easier for rescue workers,” she said.Jamaica issued advisories by radio and television for residents in low-lying areas across the island to be prepared to evacuate if necessary.At 8 p.m., the fifth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season was centered 145 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and 310 miles from Kingston, Jamaica. It was moving west-northwest at about 14 mph. A military aircraft had been dispatched to evaluate the storm.Heavy showers hit Kingston on Saturday afternoon, causing traffic jams as motorists tried to reach stores and people waited in long lines at supermarkets, filling grocery carts with canned goods, batteries and candles.”It’s nature and we can’t stop it from taking its course,” said taxi driver Patrick Wallace, 55, as he left a supermarket laden with canned goods.Christine Williams, a manager at a Kingston hardware store, said people were scooping up material to protect their homes.”They are buying mainly tarpaulin, plywood and building material. We haven’t stopped cashing (ringing people up) from morning,” she said.Despite sunny skies in the British territory of the Caymans, people packed gas stations, hardware stores and supermarkets, and formed big lines to withdraw money from cash machines. Businesses also boarded up.Debbie Curigliano, of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, said she and her husband would ride out the storm at their resort in Seven Mile Beach.”I am sure they (the hotel) have been through this before, so I am going to put all my faith in the hotel and I am sure they will guide me right through it,” she said.In Haiti, emergency officials went on local radio to warn people living in flimsy shantytowns on the southern coast to seek shelter in schools and churches. The hurricane center said Haiti and the Dominican Republic could get up to 20 inches of rain in some places – which could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides.”These people could be in great danger,” said Adel Nazaire, a coordinator with Haiti’s civil protection agency. “Flooding is the biggest concern because a lot of residents live along the rivers and the sea.”The impoverished Caribbean nation is 90 percent deforested, increasing vulnerability to deadly flooding and mudslides.Fears that the storm could damage offshore energy facilities in the Gulf of Mexico sent oil and natural gas prices higher.BP PLC said it would evacuate some 800 of its 2,400 workers from the Gulf of Mexico by late Saturday due to the storm. The evacuated workers are not essential staff, most associated with long-term projects that have not begun producing, BP spokesman Hugh DePland told Dow Jones Newswires.Meanwhile, former Tropical Storm Debby, now a depression with maximum winds of 30 mph, was expected to stay over the open Atlantic, posing only a threat to ships. At 5 p.m., the center of the storm was about 1,410 miles west-southwest of the Azores.—Associated Press Writer Stevenson Jacobs contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jay Ehrhart from Georgetown, Grand Cayman, and Mike Melia and Miranda Leitsinger contributed from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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