Airports closed, coastal hotels were evacuated and tourists hunkered down in shelters as Hurricane Dean bore down on the eastern Caribbean.
The first hurricane of the Atlantic season was a large and dangerous storm, packing 160kph winds late on Thursday as it neared the islands of Martinique, Dominica and St. Lucia, where authorities urged people to stay indoors and out of danger.
Dean's center was expected to pass very near to St. Lucia and Martinique overnight, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said in an advisory early Friday.
In a region accustomed to rough weather, islanders stocked up on essentials and taped glass windows. But conditions ahead of the storm were deceptively calm and even some locals said it was hard to believe that danger loomed out at sea.
The storm, which had hovered far out at sea for days, was expected to begin passing over the islands of the Lesser Antilles early yesterday, then intensify as it enters the warm waters of the Caribbean and heads toward Jamaica.
St. Lucian acting Prime Minister Stephenson King, said the country's two commercial airports were closed on Thursday night as the storm's outer bands began moving through the islands. Martinique's main airport was also closed.
Dominica's tourist board said about 300 tourists on the island had been moved to secure areas while hotels have been stocked with a three-day supply of food and water. Hotels in Martinique also moved tourists from seaside rooms, while the government set up cots at schoolhouse shelters.
The US National Hurricane Center in Miami said Dean would likely be a dangerous Category 3 hurricane by the time it reaches the central Caribbean. Forecasters say it appeared to be heading south of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
At 2am yesterday, Dean was centered 135km east-southeast of Martinique, and 145km north-northwest of Barbados. It had top sustained winds of 160kph, with stronger gusts. Hurricane force winds extended 35km from the center and tropical storm force winds extended up to 220km.
Officials in Texas are watching Dean's movements, even as they cleaned up from Tropical Storm Erin.
The thunderstorms from Erin brought 18cm of rain to parts of San Antonio and Houston, where one person died and another was injured when the waterlogged roof of a storage unit outside a grocery store collapsed, Fire Chief Omero Longoria said. The National Hurricane Center said 25cm of rain was possible in some areas.
The flooding "has been a good training session, if you will," as officials track Dean's progress, said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the top elected official in the county that surrounds Houston.