A hurricane again, Gustav plows toward Caymans

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands - August 29, 2008 - Gustav, which killed 71 people in the Caribbean, was expected to swirl through the Cayman Islands, a tiny offshore tax haven studded with resorts and cruise-ship souvenir shops, before crossing Cuba's cigar country and heading into the Gulf of Mexico by Sunday.

Well-heeled tourists fled Cayman hotels by air, while Katrina victims in Mississippi still living in emergency cottages and trailers were told to evacuate beginning this weekend.

Hotels on the Cayman Islands asked guests to leave, then after the airport closed prepared to shelter those who remained. Chris Smith, of Frederick, Maryland, said his hotel handed out wrist bands marked with guests' names and room numbers so that "if something happens they can quickly identify us."

"That was a little bit sobering," he said, standing outside the hotel with his luggage.

About 20 islanders waited for the storm in a high school gym.

"If people give you a shelter, you should take it," said Pamela Hall, 52.

The storm killed four people in a day-long march across the length of Jamaica, where it ripped off roofs and downed power lines. Prime Minister Bruce Golding said the government sent army helicopters Friday to rescue 31 people trapped by floods. At least 59 people died in Haiti and eight in the Dominican Republic.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gustav could grow to a Category 3 storm, with winds above 111 mph (180 kph), by the time it hits the U.S. Gulf coast next week. Gustav could strike anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Texas, but forecasters said there is a better-than-even chance that New Orleans will get slammed by at least tropical-storm-force winds.

As much as 80 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's oil and gas production could be shut down as a precaution if Gustav enters as a major storm, weather research firm Planalytics predicted. Oil companies have already evacuated hundreds of workers from offshore platforms.

Retail gas prices rose Friday for the first time in 43 days as analysts warned that a direct hit on Gulf energy infrastructure could send pump prices hurtling toward $5 a gallon. Crude oil prices ended slightly lower in a volatile session as some traders feared supply disruptions and others bet the government will release supplies from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The hurricane center said top winds increased to near 80 mph (130 kph). Gustav was centered 90 miles (130 kms) east of Grand Cayman, moving northwest near 11 mph (18 kph).

It was projected to hit Cuba's Isle of Youth, then cross the main island into the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday night or Sunday.

"Gustav could become a major hurricane near the time it crosses western Cuba," the hurricane center said.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Hanna was projected to curl westward into the Bahamas by early next week. It had sustained winds near 50 mph (85 kph).

Along the U.S. Gulf Coast, most commemorations of the Katrina anniversary were canceled because of Gustav, but in New Orleans a horse-drawn carriage took the bodies of Katrina's last seven unclaimed victims to burial.

President Bush declared an emergency in Louisiana, a move that allows the federal government to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance in storm-affected areas.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said an evacuation order was likely, though not before Saturday, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it expects a "huge number" of Gulf Coast residents will be told to leave the region this weekend.

Closer to the storm, workers at the Westin Causarina Hotel on Grand Cayman island shored up ground-floor rooms with sandbags.

"We've taken in all the balcony furniture, all the pool furniture, the marquees, tied up what needs to be tied up, cut down any coconuts," said hotel manager Dan Szydlowski.

Thunderstorms associated with Gustav already were bringing heavy downpours Friday to parts of central Cuba and evacuations were ordered in flood-prone areas.

Authorities in the tobacco-rich western Cuba, where Gustav is expected to cross the island, hauled 465,000 sacks of tobacco to higher ground for safekeeping and began distributing extra rations of milk and bread.

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