Hurricane Dean strengthened and threatened to become a dangerously powerful storm as it plowed toward the Caribbean and aimed for Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula or the Gulf of Mexico beyond, forecasters said on Thursday.
More immediately in the path of the 2007 Atlantic storm season's first hurricane were the Lesser Antilles, in particular the islands of Dominica and St Lucia and the French territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, the US National Hurricane Center said.
The hurricane's top sustained winds had reached 100 miles per hour (160 km per hour) by 5.00 pm EDT, making it a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, the Miami-based hurricane center said.
Computer models showed the hurricane could become an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm as it passed just south of Jamaica early next week.
Category 3 to 5 hurricanes, such as Katrina, Rita and Wilma in the devastating 2005 Atlantic storm season, are potentially the most destructive storms but a Category 2 hurricane can still cause some damage to buildings and create a 6- to 8-foot (1.8 meter to 2.4 meter) storm surge.
"Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the hurricane center said in an echo of warnings that rang out repeatedly in 2004 and 2005, when a series of hurricanes struck the United States, the Caribbean and Central America.
Energy markets in particular have been on edge since 2004 and 2005, when hurricanes Ivan, Katrina and Rita toppled oil rigs and flooded refineries on the US Gulf Coast. The Gulf of Mexico accounts for roughly a third of domestic US oil and natural gas production.
Moving quickly to the West
By 5.00 pm EDT, Dean was located around 210 miles east-northeast of Barbados and 305 miles east of Martinique. The storm was moving westward at 23 mph (37 kph), a brisk pace that could bring it over the Lesser Antilles islands early on Friday.