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Hurricane Dean strengthens in Caribbean, takes aim at Hispaniola, Jamaica

    SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Jamaica opened shelters nationwide on Saturday and Cuba declared a ‘‘state of alert’’ as the Caribbean’s warm waters fueled a strengthening Hurricane Dean, with forecasters predicting the storm could grow to a powerful Category 5.
    Now a Category 4 storm with sustained winds at 150 mph, Dean was expected to pass south of Hispaniola but dump as much as five inches of rain to the two countries on the island — Haiti and the Dominican Republic — which are both prone to devastating floods and mudslides.
    As dark clouds rolled in from the south and a light rain began to fall, residents of the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, calmly ran errands at stores with fully stocked shelves, despite government advisories about heavy rains and possible flooding.
    ‘‘Nothing’s going to happen here — a lot of water of nothing else,’’ said Pedro Alvajar, 61, as he sat in a doorway selling lottery tickets.
    Dean killed three people and devastated banana and sugar crops a day earlier as it crossed small eastern Caribbean islands. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said its winds could surpass 155 mph as it approaches the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico on Monday.
    By Thursday, there is a chance Dean could threaten the U.S., though it is expected to lose some strength as it travels over the Yucatan.
    NASA shortened the last spacewalk for astronauts aboard the shuttle Endeavour and scaled back the mission, to allow the spacecraft to return to Earth on Tuesday — a day early — if the storm appeared to threaten the Houston home of Mission Control.
    In Jamaica, which expected to take a direct hit Sunday, tourists including Shante Morgan of Moor Park, Calif., began lining up outside the Montego Bay airport before dawn to book flights out ahead of the storm.
    ‘‘People are freaking out because they’re not getting answers at their hotel,’’ said Morgan, a 38-year-old freelance editor who got a Saturday flight after waiting several hours. ‘‘They’re really playing down the potential influence of the hurricane.’’
    Haitian authorities issued an alert for coastal communities where thousands of people live in flimsy shacks. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne brushed the impoverished and heavily deforested country, triggering massive floods that killed 1,900 people and left 900 others missing.
    All flights from the capital, Port-au-Prince, to southern Haiti were canceled Saturday and small boats were prohibited from leaving shore, the country’s disaster management agency said.
    Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller of Jamaica — where a direct hit is expected Sunday — ordered shelters opened across the island and called for a halt to campaigning for the Aug. 27 elections. The country issued a hurricane warning.
    ‘‘Let us band together and unite in the threat of this hurricane,’’ Simpson-Miller said.
    Dean passed near the tiny islands of St. Lucia and Martinique early Friday as a Category 2 storm.
    In tiny St. Lucia, fierce winds tore corrugated metal roofs from dozens of homes and the pediatric ward of a hospital, whose patients had been evacuated hours earlier. Police spokeswoman Tamara Charles said a 62-year-old man drowned when he tried to retrieve a cow from a rain-swollen river.
    In Dominica, a woman and her 7-year-old son were killed when a rain-soaked hillside gave way and crushed the home where they were sleeping, said Cecil Shillingford, the national disaster coordinator.
    Dominica’s government later reported at least 150 homes were damaged.
    In St. Lucia, the storm scattered boulders from the sea onto downtown streets and knocked down trees. With utility poles downed, the power company turned off electricity across the island to prevent people from being electrocuted.
    At 11 a.m. EDT, Dean was centered about 565 miles east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 210 miles south-southeast of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The storm was moving west at 17 mph and had maximum sustained winds near 150 mph.
    The U.S. hurricane center issued a tropical storm watch for central Cuba, where the government declared a ‘‘state of alert’’ in six provinces early Saturday. Soldiers and emergency officials were prepared to convert schools and other government buildings into temporary shelters if necessary, state radio reported.
    Dominica, which lies north of Martinique, had minor flooding, a few downed fences and trees and battered banana crops, one of the island’s main exports.
    At Ross University School of Medicine on Dominica, about 80 medical students, mostly from the U.S., and 20 staff and faculty members spent the night watching movies, playing games or sleeping on the floor between desks in a concrete building that was converted into a shelter.
    On Martinique, an overseas department of France, many homes lost roofs, leaving people’s belongings exposed to driving rain that fell even hours after the brunt of the storm had passed.
    ‘‘We don’t have a roof ... everything is exposed. We tried to save what we could,’’ said Josephine Marcelus in the northern town of Morne Rouge. ‘‘We sealed ourselves in one room, praying that the hurricane stops blowing over Martinique.’’
    Nearly 100 percent of Martinique’s banana crops and 70 percent of its sugar cane was destroyed in the hurricane, said Christian Estrosi, France’s junior minister for overseas territories.
    Energy futures rose Friday on news that Dean could hit the Gulf of Mexico, which produces roughly 25 percent of America’s oil and 15 percent of its natural gas. Royal Dutch Shell PLC said it would evacuate 275 nonessential personnel from the Gulf, adding to the 188 who left earlier this week before another tropical storm struck Texas.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Evens Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Guy Ellis in Castries, St. Lucia; Ellsworth Carter in Roseau, Dominica; Herve Preval in Fort-de-France, Martinique; and Howard Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica, contributed to this report.

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