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Gustav pounds Jamaica, as death toll rises

Jamaica Tropical Weather
Fishermen secure their boats Thursday in Kingston, Jamaica, before the full force of Tropical Storm Gustav hits the city. Collin Reid / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Nearly a hurricane, Tropical Storm Gustav swamped Jamaica on Thursday after pounding other parts of the Caribbean and leaving at least 67 people dead in its wake. Louisiana and Texas put their national guards on standby, and New Orleans said a mandatory evacuation might be necessary.

Haiti officials on Thursday said at least 51 people had died from floods, mudslides and falling trees, including 25 around the city of Jacmel, where Gustav first struck land Tuesday.

Eight more people were buried when a cliff gave way in the Dominican Republic. A mother died clutching her 11-month-old and five more of her children were smothered in the wreckage beside her.

In Jamaica, dozens of roofs were ripped from houses by early Thursday evening, trees were toppled and many roads were left impassable by floodwaters and debris.

At 8 p.m. ET, the center of Gustav was 15 miles off Jamaica and lashing the island with winds around 70 mph, just 4 mph short of hurricane strength. Forecasters said it could grow to a hurricane before hitting the low-lying capital of Kingston on Thursday night.

Grand Cayman issued a hurricane warning and braced for a possible strike a day later.

Even as tourists searched for flights off the islands, officials urged calm. Theresa Foster, one of the owners of the Grand Caymanian Resort, said Gustav didn't look as threatening as Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed 70 percent of Grand Cayman's buildings four years ago.

"Whatever was going to blow away has already blown away," she said.

Forecasters said parts of Jamaica could get 25 inches of rain, which could trigger landslides and cause serious crop damage. Authorities told fisherman to stay ashore, and hotel workers secured beach umbrellas in the resort city of Montego Bay.

Main airport closes
Jamaica ordered residents to evacuate low-lying areas including Portmore, a crowded and flood-prone area outside Kingston, and move into shelters. Kingston's main airport was closed and buses stopped running even as people streamed into supermarkets for emergency supplies.

Oil prices jumped above $120 a barrel on fears that the storm could affect production in the Gulf area, home to 4,000 oil rigs and half of America's refining capacity. Hundreds of offshore workers pulled out as analysts said the storm could send U.S. gas prices back over $4 a gallon.

"Prices are going to go up pretty soon. You're going to see increases by 5, 10, 15 cents a gallon," said Tom Kloza, publisher of the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J. "If we have a Katrina-type event, you're talking about gas prices going up another 30 percent."

In the Atlantic, meanwhile, Tropical Storm Hanna formed on a course that pointed toward the U.S. East Coast. It was too early to predict whether Hanna could threaten land, but Gustav was causing jitters from Mexico's Cancun resort to the Florida panhandle.

Category 3 possible
With top sustained winds just below hurricane strength, Gustav was projected to become a major Category 3 hurricane after passing between Cuba and Mexico and entering the warm and deep Gulf waters. Some models showed Gustav taking a path toward Louisiana and other Gulf states devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency to lay the groundwork for federal assistance. Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration, and together they put 8,000 National Guard troops on standby.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he would order a mandatory evacuation of the city if forecasters predict a Category-3 strike — or possibly even a Category-2 — within 72 hours.

Both Jindal and Nagin were meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to plan.

"I'm panicking," said Evelyn Fuselier of Chalmette, whose home was submerged in 14 feet of Katrina's floodwaters. "I keep thinking, 'Did the Corps fix the levees?,' 'Is my house going to flood again?' ... 'Am I going to have to go through all this again?'"

In Gustav's wake, Haitians struggled to find affordable food. Jean Ramando, an 18-year-old banana grower, said winds tore down a dozen of his family's banana trees, so he was doubling his price.

"The wind blew them down quickly, so we need to make some money quickly," he said.

Forecasters said Gustav might slip between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the western tip of Cuba on Sunday, then March toward a Tuesday collision with the U.S. Gulf Coast — anywhere from south Texas to the Florida panhandle.

"We know it's going to head into the Gulf. After that, we're not sure," said meteorologist Rebecca Waddington at the National Hurricane Center. "For that reason, everyone in the Gulf needs to be monitoring the storm."

Any damage to the Gulf oil infrastructure could send U.S. gasoline prices spiking.

"A bad storm churning in the Gulf could be a nightmare scenario," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading Corp. in Chicago. "We might see oil prices spike $5 to $8 if it really rips into platforms."

Gustav is particularly worrisome because there are few surrounding wind currents capable of shearing off the top of the storm and diminishing its power, the hurricane center said. "Combined with the deep warm waters, rapid intensification could occur in a couple of days."

Mom, six children killed
Gustav's death toll included a mother and six of her seven children in the Dominican Republic.

The mother's screams and the roar of falling earth jolted a Santo Domingo shantytown from its sleep Tuesday. Marcelina Feliz and six of her children — ranging in age from 11 months to 15 years — were killed when a landslide crushed their tin-roofed house.

Feliz was found hugging the body of her smallest child, rescue officials said. A neighbor was also killed.

"I don't know how I can live now, because none of my family is left," said Marino Borges, Feliz's husband and father of several of her children.

He was away at work when the cliff fell in Guachupita, an impoverished neighborhood just north of Santo Domingo. The family had just returned from a shelter where they took refuge from Tropical Storm Fay this month, authorities said.

When rescuers dug through the dirt, they found the body of the 32-year-old mother still holding her dead baby. The family had been unable to escape their home because a locked security gate blocked the front door, Listin Diario, a local daily, reported Thursday.

Hours after Wednesday's pre-dawn landslide, the victims were laid to rest. The local funeral home's only small casket went to the baby. Some of the children seemed tiny inside caskets meant for older people.

Relatives and friends piled into motorcycles and crammed into buses to attend the burial, which was held so hastily that additional workers and shovels were called in to dig bigger holes to make the coffins fit.

Some residents demanded Thursday that the government build sturdier new homes in Guachupita.

"This here is going to crumble completely," said Thelma Acosta Feliz. "I don't know want to build here again."