Hurricane Emily strengthened as it began passing south of Jamaica with 145 mph winds on Saturday, while Mexico prepared to evacuate tourists from the Yucatan peninsula as it was next in line for a direct hit from the second major hurricane of the Atlantic season.
The storm was expected to pass near Grand Cayman Island on Sunday, coming closest to the island's famous Seven Mile Beach, before crossing over the resort-heavy peninsula on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
If Emily remains on track, it's likely to strike land in the eastern Yucatan on Sunday night, lose some strength as it moves overland, then regain its dangerous energy in warm waters over the Gulf of Mexico, said Jack Beven, the hurricane specialist at the Miami-based center.
He said Emily was likely to make landfall again sometime Wednesday, anywhere from northeastern Mexico to southern Texas, but cautioned it was too early to make a definite prediction.
In Jamaica, where evacuations of coastal areas were under way since Friday, people rushed to stock up on water, canned food and batteries for the second time this month.
Emily trails Hurricane Dennis, which killed at least 25 people in Haiti and 16 in Cuba last week. Thousands of Jamaicans who had refused to leave their homes were stranded by floods.
"I'm hoping that those who are in these areas will heed the call to evacuate before it's too late," Transport and Works Minister Robert Pickersgill said on RJR radio.
The hurricane center in Miami warned Jamaica to expect hurricane-force winds along the coast and said the storm could dump up to 15 inches of rain in the mountains, where it could burst river banks and cause mudslides.
Emily has made its presence felt from hundreds of miles away, unleashing heavy surf, gusty winds and torrential rains in all directions of the Caribbean in an unusually heavy storm so early in the Atlantic hurricane season.
Grenada still recovering from the devastation of last year's Hurricane Ivan declared a national disaster Friday, a day after Emily's winds tore up at least 100 homes, tore roofs from 2,000 more, destroyed crops and flooded scores of buildings. The storm was blamed for at least one death in Grenada that of a man whose home was buried under a landslide.
Emily's winds had decreased to about 115 mph Friday evening after reaching a high of 135 mph earlier in the day. But it regained strength a few hours later, making it once again what U.S. meteorologist Stacy Stewart called a "very rare Category 4 hurricane in the Caribbean Sea in the month of July."
Mexican officials declared a hurricane watch and advised tourists to evacuate much of the country's Caribbean coast including the resort of Cancun but stopped short of ordering the move.
"We're trying to anticipate things, so we don't get caught rushing around later," President Vicente Fox said Friday. "I'm confident we can handle this thing with good prevention work."
Emily was centered about 130 miles south-southwest of the Jamaican capital and 335 miles southeast of Grand Cayman Saturday morning. It was moving west-northwest near 18 mph.
Heavy rains drenched southeast Dominican Republic and officials warned boatmen there to stay in port, saying that coastline could expect waves higher than 10 feet.
In Grand Cayman, Texan Carolyn Parker, said she was more apprehensive than she's ever been in 20 years as a resident of the Cayman Islands.
"Ivan was pretty nasty, and I'm scared to go through that again," said the retired police officer.
Last year, three catastrophic hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne tore through the Caribbean with a collective ferocity not seen in years, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.
"Emily will remain in the Caribbean over the weekend, possibly making landfall over the Yucatan Peninsula sometimes late on Sunday or early Monday," said CBS News Meteorologist George Cullen. "From there, it looks like the storm will start to track a little bit to the north, close to the Mexican-Texas border, Tuesday or Wednesday."
Emily struck hard in Grenada, especially in the north and in the outlying islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique.
The damage came as the island nation still was recovering from Ivan, which last year killed 39 people and left a wasteland of ruined buildings.
In Trinidad, widespread flooding triggered landslides that cut off the only access road to two east coast communities, marooning hundreds of residents, Mayor Eustace Nancis said.
The hurricane brought heavy rains and flooding to Venezuela, and forced 64 families out of homes when rivers overflowed their banks, a government official said Friday. As the storm moved away, the government lifted restrictions on maritime travel that had grounded oil tankers in the world's fifth largest oil exporter.
Forecasters have predicted up to 15 Atlantic tropical storms this year, including three to five major hurricanes. The hurricane season began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.