KINGSTON, Jamaica, July 7 (Reuters) - Hurricane Dennis triggered deadly flooding in Haiti, sent mudslides down the mountains of Jamaica and strengthened into an extremely dangerous storm with 135-mph (216-kph) winds as it approached Cuba on Thursday.
Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Dennis would hit Cuba on Friday and head into the Gulf of Mexico, where U.S. oil companies prepared for a possible threat to oil and gas rigs.
Cuba evacuated 200,000 people from low-lying areas as authorities warned the island's 11 million people that Dennis would strengthen further before crossing through the provinces east of Havana.
As it 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.
It was expected to brush past the Keys on Saturday and slam ashore on Sunday on the U.S. coast along the Florida Panhandle, which was hammered by Hurricane Ivan last September.
"When Dennis gets into the Gulf of Mexico, this will be a whole statewide problem," said Florida state meteorologist Ken Nelson. "This is going to be a very large storm like Ivan."
NASA was expected to decide on Friday whether to delay the scheduled launch on Wednesday of the space shuttle Discovery at Cape Canaveral on Florida's Atlantic coast. It would be the first shuttle flight since the Columbia accident in 2003. If the launch is delayed, Discovery will be returned to its hangar for safety.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, most of Cuba and parts of the Florida Keys.
At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), the center of Dennis was near Cabo Cruz in southeastern Cuba, the hurricane center said.
Its winds strengthened to 135 mph (216 kph), becoming a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, capable of causing extreme damage.
Massive waves pounded eastern Cuba, overturning a truck on a coastal road east of Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city, where strong gusts of winds knocked down trees.
HEAVY RAINS, MUDSLIDES
Heavy rain flooded parts of southern Haiti and forced residents to flee their homes. One person was killed when a tree fell on a house near the southern city of Les Cayes and seven more 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.
"I was going to cross the bridge, I was about 30 metres (100 feet) away, suddenly, I saw it falling down", said Jonas Jean-Jacques, a young student. "There were several people crossing at that time and all of them fell off."
Dennis drenched Jamaica, 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.
Jamaica's airports shut down, supermarkets ran low on supplies and schools were closed. Soldiers and police were put on alert to prevent looting.
Tourists in the coastal resort cities of Negril, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay remained in their hotels but were not asked to move to shelters. Some had their departure delayed because two international airports were closed.
The storm 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 Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Anthony Boadle in Havana, Michael Peltier in Tallahassee and Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral)
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