BREAKING NEWS: Ernesto now a hurricane

Tropical Storm Ernesto strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane Sunday as it steamed through the central Caribbean toward Haiti, becoming the first hurricane of the 2006 Atlantic season.

The storm’s maximum sustained winds increased to 75 mph, just above the threshold for a hurricane, said the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Ernesto could grow into a Category 3 hurricane by Thursday, menacing a broad swath of the Gulf Coast including hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, the hurricane center said earlier. Category 3 Hurricane Katrina struck the city a year ago Tuesday.

“It looks likely that it will hit (the U.S.), but it’s way too soon to say where” or how much impact it would have, said John Cangialosi, a meteorologist with the hurricane center. “At this point, keep a close eye, anyone in the Gulf Coast, and just keep monitoring this.” Members of the Cayman Islands Hurricane Committee are keeping an eye on Ernesto.

‘This system is still to the south and east of us and we cannot relax or guard and feel we are home free yet,’ advised Cayman’s National Hurricane Chairman Donovan Ebanks, adding that the NHC will continue to monitor the system closely and residents are urged to do likewise and to pay close attention to local media. Mr. Ebanks said that it is likely that the current Hurricane Watch will be revised during the course of today. The NHC will issue substantive information late today as to projected conditions for tomorrow and the expected impact, if any, on normal working day operations.

Based on the 4 am advisory, the Cayman Islands Weather Service is not expecting tropical storm force conditions for Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Based on current projections, residents of those two islands may expect rough seas, particularly on the north side of the islands, and squally weather, with a less intense picture for Grand Cayman.

However, all residents of the Cayman Islands should continue to exercise care, given continued potential for change in the projected path of the system. A hurricane watch was in effect for Jamaica and Cuba, where 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 centimeters) of rain were possible. Fisherman were warned to return to shore with tides of up to 3 feet (1 meter) above normal expected.

Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller put the country’s security forces on alert, and said at a news conference Saturday that all the island’s shelters were open. “Ensure that the children are not left alone, and make it easier for rescue workers,” she said.

Jamaica issued advisories by radio and television for residents in low-lying areas across the island to be prepared to evacuate if necessary.

At 8 a.m. EDT (0900GMT), the fifth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season was centered about 115 miles (193 kilometers) southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and 210 miles south southwest of Guantanamo, Cuba. Ernesto if moving toward the northwest near 9mph and a northwestward to west-northwestward motion is expected in the next 24 hours. Heavy showers hit Kingston on Saturday afternoon, causing traffic jams as motorists tried to reach stores. People waited in long lines at supermarkets, filling grocery carts with canned goods, batteries and candles.

“It’s nature and we can’t stop it from taking its course,” said taxi driver Patrick Wallace, 55, as he left a supermarket after buying a stock of canned goods.

Christine Williams, a manager at a Kingston hardware store, said people were buying material to protect their homes.

“They are buying mainly tarpaulin, plywood and building material. We haven’t stopped cashing (ringing people up) from morning,” she said.

Despite sunny skies in the British territory of the Caymans, people packed gas stations, hardware stores and supermarkets, and formed big lines to withdraw money from cash machines. Businesses also boarded up.

Debbie Curigliano, of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, said she and her husband would ride out the storm at their resort in Seven Mile Beach.

“I am sure they (hotel staff) have been through this before, so I am going to put all my faith in the hotel and I am sure they will guide me right through it,” she said.

In Haiti, emergency officials went on local radio to warn people living in flimsy shantytowns on the southern coast to seek shelter in schools and churches. The hurricane center said Haiti and the Dominican Republic could get up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain in some places which could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides.

“These people could be in great danger,” said Adel Nazaire, a coordinator with Haiti’s civil protection agency. “Flooding is the biggest concern because a lot of residents live along the rivers and the sea.”

The impoverished Caribbean nation is 90 percent deforested, increasing vulnerability to deadly flooding and mudslides. Fears that the storm could damage offshore energy facilities in the Gulf of Mexico sent oil and natural gas prices higher.

BP PLC had said it would evacuate some 800 of its 2,400 workers from the Gulf of Mexico by late Saturday due to the storm. The evacuated workers are not essential staff, most associated with long-term projects that have not begun producing, BP spokesman Hugh DePland told Dow Jones Newswires.

Meanwhile, former Tropical Storm Debby, now a depression with maximum winds of 30 mph (48 kilometers), was expected to stay over the open Atlantic, posing only a threat to ships. At 5 a.m. EDT (0900GMT), the center of the storm was about 1,435 miles (2309 kilometers) west- southwest of the Azores.