HAVANA, July 8 (Reuters) - Hurricane Dennis gathered strength with extremely dangerous 150-mph (240-kph) winds as it bore down on central Cuba on Friday and was on track for the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, where oil companies began evacuating workers from rigs.
Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the eye of Dennis would hit Cuba on Friday afternoon and head into the eastern Gulf early on Saturday.
Dennis is the strongest Atlantic hurricane to form this early in the season since records began in 1851, the center said.
Chevron Corp <CVX.N> said it evacuated all workers from the central and eastern Gulf where oil and gas rigs could be at risk. Shell Oil Co. <SHEL.L> <RD.AS> said it evacuated 555 workers from Gulf operations as a precaution, and that more evacuations were expected.
Dennis was keeping the price of crude above $60 a barrel, New York traders said on Friday.
Hurricane winds and heavy rainfall knocked down power lines and communication towers in southeastern Cuba, but the island of 11 million braced for worse as Dennis headed for landfall near the city of Cienfuegos.
At the nearby Bay of Pigs, buses evacuated residents after they secured their homes, taped up windows and collected valuable possessions.
Panicky inhabitants of Havana, the capital of 2.3 million, lined up at gasoline stations and bakeries to stock up with fuel and bread. Authorities suspended all school classes in Cuba and evacuated 200,000 people from coastal areas, including hundreds of tourists on holiday on outlying islands.
The hurricane was expected to barrel through Cuba and out into the Florida Straits anywhere between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, Cuban forecasters said.
As Dennis took aim at the U.S. coast, residents were ordered to evacuate Key West and the lower part of the Florida Keys, an island chain connected to the southern tip of mainland Florida by a single highway.
Dennis was expected to brush past the Keys early on Saturday and pass close to key oil and gas fields off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, before slamming ashore on Sunday night along the Florida Panhandle, which was hammered by Hurricane Ivan last September.
NASA decided on Friday to leave space shuttle Discovery on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but continued to watch Dennis closely. A decision to roll Discovery back to its hangar would have delayed the scheduled Wednesday launch of the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster in early 2003.
The Naval Air Station at Key West ordered 8,700 military personnel and their families to evacuate the lower Florida Keys and designated Orlando as a safe haven for them. Only designated emergency and security people will remain at the air station and military facilities, a Navy statement said.
Moving over shallow and warm waters off southern Cuba, Dennis continued to gain strength after becoming a Category 4 storm late on Thursday on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. A hurricane of that rating is capable of causing extreme damage.
HAITI HIT HARD
At 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), the center of Dennis was 130 miles (205 km) west of Camaguey, Cuba, and was again moving at 15 mph (24 kph) on its northwest track, the hurricane center said.
Some weakening is forecast as the storm moves over Cuba, but Dennis is expected to remain a major hurricane as it emerges over the Straits and the southeastern Gulf on Friday night, it said.
Heavy rain flooded parts of southern Haiti and forced residents to flee their homes. A young man, identified as Gardy Salomon, was killed when a tree fell on a house near the southern city of Les Cayes, civil protection officials said.
Seven more Haitians were missing and feared dead after floods swept them off a bridge in Grand-Goave southwest of Port-au-Prince, civil protection spokesman Dieufort Deslorge said. He said 26 houses were destroyed.
"We cannot confirm any dead for now in Grand-Goave," he said. "We have received reports that a number of people were on the bridge when it collapsed but we don't know whether they managed to get out of the river or were actually killed."
"No body has been recovered so far."
The storm drenched Jamaica on Thursday, triggering mudslides that blocked roads as the core of the storm moved north of the mountainous Caribbean island of 2.6 million. About 3,000 people moved to storm shelters in south-central Jamaica.
It also doused the Cayman Islands, a tiny British territory and banking center with 43,000 residents. Hurricane Ivan damaged or destroyed 70 percent of the buildings on Grand Cayman Island in September.
(Additional reporting by Damian Wroclavsky in Cuba, Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Jim Loney in Miami, Michael Peltier in Tallahassee and Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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