Gustav claims 67 lives in Haiti and Dominican Republic

Residents and tourists alike fled Jamaica as strengthening tropical storm Gustav lurched toward the island Thursday after triggering floods and landslides that killed at least 67 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola.

Tropical storm on path toward Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

Residents and tourists alike fled Jamaica as a strengthening tropical storm Gustav lurched toward the island late Thursday after triggering floods and landslides that killed at least 67 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola.

At least 59 people died in Haiti 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.

Marcelina Feliz died clutching her 11-month-old baby. Five more of her children were smothered in the wreckage beside her.

Thursday night, Gustav was 55  kilometres off Jamaica but already lashing the island with tropical storm-force winds.

Dozens of roofs were ripped from houses, trees were toppled and many roads were left impassable by floodwaters and debris.

U.S. forecasters said the storm could grow to a hurricane before hitting the low-lying capital of Kingston early Friday and then moving on to the Cayman Islands.

Forecasters said parts of Jamaica could get 635 millimetres 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.

Jamaican authorities 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.

The storm is expected to pick up more strength from the warm waters south of Cuba and hug Jamaica's southern shore before making an almost direct hit on the Caymans by late Friday, likely as a strong Category 1 hurricane.

Cayman Islands brace for landfall

Tourists are leaving the Caymans, and resorts are closing as Gustav approaches.

Even as tourists searched for flights off the islands, officials urged calm.

Gustav didn't look as threatening as Hurricane Ivan, which destroyed 70 per cent of Grand Cayman's buildings four years ago, said Theresa Foster, one of the owners of the Grand Caymanian Resort.

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

As of 11 p.m. ET on Thursday, the storm carried winds of 110 km/h and was dumping heavy rains, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.

Cuba issued a hurricane warning for the west of the country Thursday at 5 p.m. ET. A tropical storm warning remains in effect for Granma province.

A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch were in effect for Jamaica and a hurricane watch was in effect for the Cayman Islands.

Forecasters at the Miami-based hurricane institute predicted the storm would turn "more to the west and the northwest" around the time it enters the Gulf of Mexico, and would become a "powerful hurricane" as it moves into the southern Gulf on Sunday.

Oil prices jumped above $120 US a barrel on fears that the storm could affect production in the Gulf area, home to 4,000 oil rigs and half of the United States' 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 per cent."

Katrina anniversary looms

Gustav is expected to become a Category 2 hurricane as it moves between Cuba and Jamaica, then head toward the U.S. Gulf Coast as a dangerous Category 3 hurricane next week after passing over warm waters.

But forecasters warned that the average error in five-day forecasts is about 500 kilometres in either direction, meaning the storm could hit anywhere from south Texas to the Florida panhandle.

Even so, New Orleans officials on Wednesday declared a pre-storm state of emergency, put 3,000 National Guard troops on standby and began planning for possible evacuations and advising those living along the coast to prepare for the storm, which could strike the city on Thursday, the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's arrival.

New Orleans was left devastated by the 2005 storm, which flooded more than 80 per cent of the city and was blamed for the deaths of nearly 1,500 people.

With files from the Associated Press