Hurricane lashes Caribbean coast

Miami - Hurricane Charley bore down on Jamaica and headed to the Cayman Islands on Wednesday, while oil workers abandoned rigs in the Gulf of Mexico as another tropical storm loomed and moved toward the southern United States coast.

Charley lashed Jamaica with heavy rains on Wednesday, but forecasters said the strongest winds swirling around the storm's eye would miss the Caribbean island.

Emergency shelters were set up across the island, but officials said no one had moved into them yet, with the hurricane causing only slight damage and no injuries.

Streets were deserted as business closed early in most of the country, but the island's two international airports, Sangsters in Montego Bay and Norman Manley in Kingston, were scheduled to be reopen later Wednesday evening.

A hurricane warning was issued just before 5pm (2200 GMT) amid projections Jamaica will still be drenched over the next 12 hours by heavy rains that are expected to ease up by mid-afternoon Thursday.

A similar warning was issued for northwestern Florida as Tropical Storm Bonnie gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing US oil giant ChevronTexaco Corp. to evacuate 15 oil platforms and two drilling rigs.

About 630 employees were evacuated from the company's operations in the central and eastern parts of the Gulf of Mexico, said ChevronTexaco spokesman Matt Carmichael.

"More importantly, we have about 67 501 barrels of oil production per day that has been shut in, as well as 107 675 million cubic feet of natural gas per day that has been shut in," Carmichael said.

"We're already making accommodations to get our crews back off shore as soon as the okay is given by the National Weather Service and all of our safety concerns are addressed," he added.

Bonnie was expected to hit an area of northwestern Florida known as the Panhandle on Thursday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC.)

Authorities also issued a hurricane watch for the Florida Keys, as forecasts, which are subject to significant margins of error, showed Hurricane Charley could eventually hit the chain of islands south of Miami.

A hurricane watch means sustained winds of 119 kilometres per hour associated with a hurricane are possible within 36 hours.

A hurricane warning has been issued for the Cayman Islands as the storm headed in that direction.

At 8pm (midnight GMT) Charley's eye was located 220 kilometres west-southwest of Kingston, Jamaica and about 400 kilometres southeast of Grand Cayman, the NHC said.

It was moving toward the west-northwest at 28 kilometres per hour and was expected to gradually turn toward the northwest.

"On this track ... the centre will be passing near or over the Cayman Islands on Thursday" said NHC forecaster Lixion Avila.

Jamaica's Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management urged people living on the coast to move to higher ground, and warned that the hurricane may cause high waves and storm surges.

"Rain bands with tropical storm force winds in squalls will continue to affect much of Jamaica this evening and tonight," said Avila. "These conditions will begin to spread over the Cayman Islands early Thursday."

In Cuba, where a hurricane watch was in effect, authorities said they evacuated more than 25 000 in the western Pinar del Rio province, as well as 1 300 tourists who were staying at Cayo Largo 60 kilometres off the main island.

The hurricane packed winds of 120 kilometres per hour, with higher gusts.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Bonnie's center was 220 kilometres south of the mouth of the Mississippi River at 7pm (midnight GMT), moving northeast at 19 kilometres per hour. Its winds blew at 104 kilometres per hour

The US Coast Guard urged mariners to closely monitor the storms "and take early action to protect their vessels."

"Because of the uncertainty of weather movements and related bridge closures, mariners should seek early passage through drawbridges well in advance of the arrival of gale force winds," it said in a statement.

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