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Gustav strengthens, aims at Caymans

Tropical Storm Gustav whipped Jamaica with fierce rain and wind Thursday and threatened to grow back into a hurricane before striking the Cayman Islands today.

No fatalities were reported in Jamaica, but the death toll continued to mount throughout Gustav's wake in Hispaniola, with Haitian officials confirming at least 51 deaths.

And in case one wasn't enough, another tropical storm — the eighth of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season — is spinning about 1,400 miles east-southeast of Miami.

Tropical Storm Hanna could strengthen into a hurricane by Labor Day, but it likely wouldn't threaten the U.S. coast until later next week, if at all.

Wind shear had “taken its toll on Hanna,” and the fledgling storm with 40 mph winds was “struggling,” according to an evening update from the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Meanwhile, Gustav's winds increased to 70 mph from 45 mph, and the storm made landfall at near-hurricane strength Thursday afternoon on Jamaica's eastern shore. The government ordered evacuations for people in low-lying and flood-prone areas as the weather service said Gustav could dump more than a foot of rain before clearing out of the country early today.

Officials in the Cayman Islands prepared for Gustav's arrival today by prohibiting visitors from entering until after the storm passes. Many tourists had already left, although the government did not issue any mandatory evacuation orders.

Theresa Foster, an owner of the Grand Caymanian Resort, said Gustav didn't seem as scary as Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 storm that destroyed many buildings when it passed within 30 miles of the island in 2004.

“Whatever was going to blow away has already blown away,” she said.

Hurricane center forecasters now expect Gustav to regain hurricane status today before it churns past the Caymans.

The storm may continue intensifying over warm water, and forecasters said it could track into the Gulf of Mexico as a major Category 3 hurricane by Sunday.

The five-day forecast projects a landfall with 115 mph winds Monday night somewhere along the Gulf Coast, from central Texas to the western tip of the Florida Panhandle.

The prospect of a major hurricane striking the Gulf Coast — home to a large chunk of U.S. crude-oil production — sent oil prices soaring above $120 a barrel Thursday.

Analysts said it could being a spike in gas prices heading into the travel-heavy Labor Day weekend. “You're going to see increases by 5, 10, 15 cents a gallon,” said Tom Kloza, publisher of the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey.

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