KINGSTON (Reuters) - Jamaica urged people to leave low-lying areas and head to evacuation centers on Sunday as powerful Hurricane Dean bore down on the island, after killing at least four people on its path through the Caribbean.
Dean was a Category 4 hurricane, the second-highest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it neared the verdant and mountainous island but it was expected to strengthen into a rare and potentially catastrophic Category 5 as it heads toward Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Monday.
The Jamaican government urged people to flee low-lying and landslide-prone areas, put troops and police on alert and bussed people to evacuation centers.
But residents of one low-lying seaport town close to Kingston refused to flee.
"We are going nowhere," Byron Thompson said in the former buccaneer town of Port Royal, settled by pirate Henry Morgan in the 16th century. "In fact, if you come by here later today you will see me drinking rum over in that bar with some friends."
The Jamaican power company said it would switch off electricity after 10 a.m. local time (1500 GMT).
Lines formed at gas stations and supermarkets were crammed as shoppers bought batteries, flashlights, canned tuna, rice and water. Campaigning for Aug. 27 elections was halted.
Dean packed sustained winds of 230 km per hour and its eye was about 295 km east-southeast of the capital Kingston at 8 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).
Hurricane warnings were also in effect for the Cayman islands and parts of Haiti and a tropical storm warning was issued for parts of Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Dean was the first hurricane of what is expected to be an above-average 2007 Atlantic storm season.
Officials in the Dominican Republic, where the hurricane sent 5.5-metre waves crashing onto southern beaches, said a 16-year-old Haitian was swept out to sea.
That brought to at least four the number of victims since Dean roared into the Caribbean between the Lesser Antilles islands of Martinique and St. Lucia on Friday.
Dean was moving west-northwest at 30 kph and was being watched closely by energy markets, which have been skittish since a series of storms in 2004 and 2005 toppled Gulf of Mexico oil rigs, flooded refineries and cut pipelines.
The latest computer models showed Dean tracking just to the south of Jamaica. That could mean its most damaging winds in the northeast quadrant could slam Kingston.
It was then expected to pass the Cayman Islands, a wealthy British territory and financial center, and hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula early in the week.
After that it was likely to aim for the northern Mexico coast rather than threatening the most critical U.S. offshore oil and gas production areas further north.
Mexican authorities began evacuations from the Caribbean coast, while U.S. President George W. Bush issued an emergency declaration for Texas to free up federal help and funds.
The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour hastily departed the orbiting International Space Station in order to land back on Earth a day ahead of schedule in case the storm forced NASA to evacuate its mission control center in Houston.
Cuba declared a hurricane emergency for the southeast provinces of Guantanamo, Granma and Santiago de Cuba, and westernmost province of Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth, evacuating tens of thousands of people from low lying areas in the four provinces and along the entire southern coast.
Dean's destructive core passed south of Haiti's southern coast, and there were no immediate reports of emergencies. But tropical cyclones frequently trigger flash floods and mudslides in the deforested, poverty-stricken country of 8 million.
Category 5 hurricanes are rare. Until the record-breaking 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, records showed only two years -- 1960 and 1961 -- with more than one Category 5 storm.
But in 2005, four hurricanes reached that strength -- Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- triggering debate about the impact of global warming on tropical cyclones.
(Additional reporting by Matt Bigg in Atlanta, Marc Frank in Havan, Michael Christie in Miami, Carlos Barria and Carole Beckford in Kingston, Manuel Jimenez in the Santo Domingo, Shurna Robbins and Alan Markoff in George Town and Anna Willard in Paris)