KINGSTON, Jamaica – Hurricane Dean pummeled Jamaica with gusting winds and torrential rains Sunday after the prime minister made a last-minute plea for residents to abandon their homes and head for shelter. Many residents ignored the call, however, while tourists holed up in resorts with hurricane-proof walls.
Dean, which had already killed eight people on its destructive march across the Caribbean, triggered evacuation calls from the Cayman Islands to Texas, and forced the Space Shuttle to cut short its mission. Cruise ships changed course to avoid the storm, but some tourists in Jamaica could not get away before the island closed its airports late Saturday.
The National Hurricane Center said the first hurricane of the Atlantic season was projected to reach a Category 5 classification with sustained winds of 160 mph before crashing into the Cayman Islands on Monday and Mexico's Yucatan peninsula after that. The Mexican mainland or Texas could be hit later.
Hurricane-force winds began lashing Jamaica on Sunday afternoon, said meteorologist Rebecca Waddington at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters said Jamaica would take a near-direct hit with Dean's eye passing just to the south later Sunday night.
The government set up more than 1,000 shelters in converted schools, churches and the indoor national sports arena. Authorities urged people to take cover from the storm, which had maximum sustained winds of 145 mph and was expected to dump up to 20 inches of rain on the island.
But only 47 shelters were occupied as the storm began hitting, said Cecil Bailey of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management.
"For the last time, I'm asking you to leave or you will be in danger," Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller urged residents earlier as the storm loomed offshore.
As of 8 p.m. Sunday, Dean was located 70 miles west-southwest of Kingston and was traveling west at 20 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
George Lee, mayor of the Portmore community near the capital Kingston, said appeals to evacuate had gone unheeded. Some islanders said they were afraid for their belongings if they moved to shelters.
"Too much crime in Kingston. I'm not leaving my home," Paul Lyn said in Port Royal, east of Kingston.
Assistant Commissioner of Police Linval Bailey said police were sent to commercial districts to prevent looting and curfews were imposed until Monday evening. Police got into a shootout with looters at a shopping center in the central Jamaican parish of Clarendon, but no one was hurt, Constable Cheree Greaves said.
Authorities also cut power on the island to prevent damage to the electrical infrastructure.
Many tourists who did not get flights out took shelter at places like Sandals Whitehouse, a resort that has buildings capable of withstanding a powerful storm.
Trinice Tyler, a postal worker from Lake Elsinore, Calif., said she would weather the storm there "on my knees praying."
"I'm celebrating my 40th birthday today, and it's going to be a birthday to remember," she said. "I have mixed emotions. It's exciting, but I'm nervous. Am I going to make it home?"
Earlier in the day, fishermen hauled their skiffs inland and cruise ships changed their course to avoid the storm. Local media reported that 17 fisherman were stranded on the Middle Keys, small islands about 90 miles south of Jamaica. The Jamaica Defense Force advised them to break the padlocks off a building to seek shelter, Nationwide News Network reported.
In Galveston, Texas, residents remembered the 2005 Hurricane Rita evacuation when motorists from the coast ran into residents fleeing Houston, clogging evacuation routes for miles. Officials say they've worked out the kinks in the system, but many Galveston residents were skeptical.
"I've talked to a lot of people about this," said Chuck Lee, a resident. "They'd rather die in their homes than die in their cars on some highway."
In the Cayman Islands, tourists were ordered to board shuttle buses for the airport. Hundreds of frantic vacationers lined up at ticket counters for special flights home, and many slept on the airport floor. Cayman Islands Gov. Stuart Jack said all but 1,500 tourists were evacuated from the British territory by Sunday afternoon.
"It's kind of spooky," said George Mitchell, of Detroit, who missed his flight out. "We don't know what to do or where to go. It freaks you out."
In Mexico, tourists also streamed out of resorts on Yucatan peninsula and formed long lines at the airport to try to fly home. Twelve empty planes arrived Sunday to move travelers out, said airport spokesman Eduardo Rivadeneira. The state government set up 530 shelters with a capacity of 73,000 people.
Governments in Central America declared themselves on alert for the secondary effects of Dean, whose outer bands were already dumping rain and whipping up surf on their Caribbean coastlines.
In Nicaragua, a 4-year-old girl died when a boat she was on sank Saturday night amid high winds and waves in the Kukra River, El Nuevo Diario newspaper reported Sunday.
The hurricane created massive waves and surges high as 20 feet as it passed the Dominican Republic on Saturday, flooding roads and drowning a boy. At least two people were killed and about 150 homes were destroyed in Haiti, emergency officials said.