CARACAS, Venezuela -- Immense and dangerous Hurricane Dean slammed into Jamaica's southern shore yesterday evening, ripping roofs from buildings, flattening trees and flooding coastal areas.
Although there were no early reports of deaths, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said she was "very concerned" about the storm's impact, especially about the eastern parish of St. Thomas, with which the national disaster preparedness office lost contact.
The hurricane, the most powerful Caribbean storm this season, remained on a course that could take it to Mexico's busiest tourist zone, the Yucatan Peninsula, by late today or early tomorrow. Officials in Cancun said they had prepared shelter space for more than 73,000 people.
Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Dean could be upgraded to category 5 -- the most powerful, with winds stronger than 155 mph -- by the time it hits Mexico.
As of 11 p.m., Dean was 135 miles west-southwest of Kingston, headed west at 20 mph, the hurricane center said.
If Dean stays on its current track, chances are slim that the storm will reach the United States. Despite that, President Bush has issued an emergency declaration to federal and state disaster agencies.
The last Category 5 hurricane was Katrina, which unleashed havoc on the Gulf Coast in September 2005.
Although Dean's eye passed 40 miles south of Kingston, Jamaica's capital, such was its force and size that parts of the coast were lashed with 115 mph winds. After a plea from Miller, thousands of residents left their homes and headed to shelters.
The government warned that up to 20 inches of rain could bring flash floods. Most of the country was without power. As night fell, Kingston was transformed into a ghost town. The police commissioner had declared a curfew in major cities to limit the possibility of looting.
"The all-clear has not been given," Omar Afflick, Jamaica's acting senior director for preparedness and emergency operations, told the Associated Press last night. "Dean is still affecting the island with hurricane-strength conditions."
He said the storm caused landslides and tremendous damage to roads and houses.
Forecasters had predicted that Dean would hit the Cayman Islands head-on, but said last night that it would probably pass to the south. Still, the islands could get up to 12 inches of rain and tropical-storm strength winds today, said meteorologist Rebecca Waddington of the hurricane center.
Before its arrival in Jamaica, the storm caused a reported eight deaths in Hispaniola and the Lesser Antilles.
In the Cayman Islands, the government scheduled 15 extra flights over the weekend to evacuate residents and tourists.
Jamaican soldiers were patrolling Kingston and other cities. Jamaica has not experienced a direct hit from a hurricane since Gilbert in 1988. That Category 3 storm claimed more than 30 lives and destroyed many properties.
Over the weekend, two deaths were reported in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. A tree fell on a house in Marun, killing one man, and a woman died in a mudslide in the southwest, government officials said. Several hundred homes in Haiti were destroyed by landslides.
Large numbers of tourists were stranded in Jamaica because the island closed its airports late Saturday.
Oil companies, including Shell and Mexico's state-owned Pemex, were evacuating hundreds of employees at drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
NASA ordered the space shuttle Endeavour to make an early departure from the International Space Station to return to Earth a day early in the remote chance its staff is forced to evacuate the command and control center in Houston.
Jamaicans rushed to stores yesterday before the storm hit to stock up on water and food.
In other parts of the city, government agencies charged with evacuating low areas met resistance from residents, many of whom refused to leave.
As the storm approached, authorities said at least 17 people ignored mandatory evacuation orders and were stranded at Pedro Cays, just off the coast of St. Elizabeth, one of Jamaica's southern parishes.
Chris Kraul writes for the Los Angeles Times.