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Hurricane Gustav hits Haiti; oil prices rise

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Hurricane Gustav struck Haiti on Tuesday and sent global oil prices soaring on fears it could become “extremely dangerous” as it approaches the Gulf of Mexico.

The rain drove many Haitians off the capital’s potholed streets as hurricane-force winds reached Haiti’s southern coast. Workers rushed home under darkening skies as businesses closed early. Palm trees swayed in the wind and people held umbrellas, bags and boxes over their heads against the rain.

“I’m not too happy about it because I needed to get paid today,” Darlene Pierre, 22, grumbled as she left her textile factory.

Oil investors feared the hurricane could eventually threaten the Gulf’s many drilling platforms. Traders on the New York Mercantile Exchange were caught off guard by how fast the storm was upgraded to a hurricane, and the price for a barrel of oil jumped $5 within minutes Tuesday morning.

“Most indications are that Gustav will be an extremely dangerous hurricane in the northwestern Caribbean Sea in a few days,” the Miami-based National Hurricane Center projected.

Forecasts often shift significantly as a storm develops, but longer term projections show Gustav slicing along the south coast of Cuba during the week and possibly growing into a perilous Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph (190 kph) winds before entering the central Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.

Gustav is “still a long way from oil and gas infrastructure, but gas traders will be keenly focused on direction/magnitude of this summer’s first storm to potentially impact energy markets,” securities firm Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. told its clients Tuesday morning.

At Port-au-Prince’s airport, stranded travelers mobbed the American Airlines counter, desperate to rebook tickets after the airline canceled all flights.

“I knew it was coming, but I was hoping to be out before it came,” said Jody Stoltzfus, a 27-year-old missionary who said the cancellation will cut short her two-week visit home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, on Cuba’s southeast coastline, had been expecting a direct hit, but the latest forecasts showed the hurricane is more likely to pass offshore.

“Routine base operations will continue through the day as normal, assuming conditions warrant this, while emergency preparations continue,” said Bruce Lloyd, spokesman for the base where the U.S. detains about 265 men.

Forecasters said Gustav had sustained winds near 90 mph (150 kph) Tuesday morning, with higher gusts, and could become a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 96 mph (154 kph) or higher before hitting Haiti. It was centered about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Port-au-Prince, moving northwest at near 9 mph (15 kph).

A light rain fell on the capital of Port-au-Prince, home to nearly 3 million people where the rough streets often bustle with commerce at the crack of dawn. On Tuesday, they were largely empty.

“The government orders the population to take precautions because this storm will bring a lot of rain,” Interior Minister Paul Antonine Bien-Aime told Radio Ginen.

But in the southwestern city of Les Cayes, more directly in the hurricane’s path, some people without access to television or satellite images doubted a storm was even approaching.

“There’s no rain and wind, the sky is clear, cars are traveling everywhere. I don’t think there’s a hurricane,” Marc Andre, a 22-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, said over his cell phone at dawn.

Haitians are accustomed to the brutal power of these blasts. Flooding caused by storms and hurricanes killed more than 100 people in Haiti and scores in the Dominican Republic last year. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed some 3,000 people in the Haitian city of Gonaives alone.

Tropical Storm Fay killed 23 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic this month. Nearly all drowned in flooded rivers.