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Dean set to become Category 5 storm

Hurricane heads toward Caymans, Yucatan Peninsula, after pounding Jamaica.

MIAMI | August 20, 2007

Hurricane Dean was expected to become a powerful Category 5 storm Monday as it headed toward the Cayman Islands and the Yucatan Peninsula, the National Hurricane Center predicted.

On Sunday, Dean pounded Jamaica with torrential rains and strong winds as it swirled past the island's southern coast, sparing it a direct hit. Even so, extensive damage was reported with flooding, downed power lines, fallen trees and collapsed buildings, according to the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. It said some water supplies were damaged and electricity was off for more than 125,000 Jamaica Public Service Company customers.

On the Cayman Islands, officials said they were ready for Dean. A hurricane warning was in effect for the islands.

"We are more prepared than ever," said Stuart Kernohan, police commissioner for the Caymans. "Our hurricane plans are constantly being reviewed and assessed and significant improvements have been made since Hurricane Ivan."

Ivan devastated the Caymans when it struck in 2004, leaving more than 25 percent of the buildings on the islands uninhabitable.

Officials on the Caymans said they were hoping that Dean would stick to its forecasted path and skirt the islands to the south as it approached Monday. They warned, however, that the storm was unpredictable and advised "extreme caution."

Hurricane warnings, meantime, were in effect for the coast of Belize and the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Belize City north to Cancun. A tropical storm warning was posted for the coast of Belize from south of Belize City to the Belize-Guatemala border.

A hurricane watch was posted along the northern and western coasts of the Yucatan Peninsula, from north of Cancun to Ciudad del Carmen.

A hurricane warning also remained in effect for Jamaica as of 2 a.m. EDT Monday. Jamaica was spared from a direct hit from the powerful hurricane which passed with winds of 145 mph. Haiti also avoided a direct hit as the storm tracked to the south of the island.

At least nine people have been killed across the Caribbean by the storm, the first hurricane of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season.

As of 8 a.m. EDT Monday, Dean was about 440 east of Belize City with winds of 150 mph, just slightly under the 156 mph needed to be upgraded to the highest Category 5. Forecasters said Dean could become a Category 5 storm within 24 hours.

Dean was moving to the west at 21 mph and was expected to the reach the Yucatan Peninsula by Monday night.

The National Hurricane Center said Dean could dump 4 to 8 inches of rain on the Caymans and from 5 to 20 inches on the Yucatan Peninsula.

As much as 7 inches of rain could soak eastern Cuba, where a tropical storm warning was in effect. A tropical storm watch was posted for other areas in Cuba.

Forecasters said Dean was expected to weaken over the Yucatan Peninsula, then could strengthen again when it moves back into the Gulf.

"It is still possible that Dean could restrengthen and again reach major hurricane status prior to final landfall along the coast of mainland Mexico," they said.

The latest five-day track of the storm showed Dean tracking more to the south and striking the mainland Mexican coast on Wednesday. On that track, it would avoid a hit on the Texas coastline.

Full-scale hurricane preparations were ordered earlier in Texas and federal aid for the state was approved Saturday in advance of the storm. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency and requested a federal emergency declaration in preparation for the storm.

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