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CNN: Storm projected to grow into Category 5 hurricane

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Satellite image shows Hurricane Dean’s position at 9:15 a.m. ET Saturday.  

(CNN) — Hurricane Dean intensified Saturday as it muscled across the Caribbean and headed toward a dangerous rendezvous Sunday with Jamaica.

Forecasters fear Dean will be a destructive Category 5 monster packing 155 mph winds by then.

Even worse could be yet to come. By Monday, as Dean nears Cancun and other tourist areas along Mexico’s eastern Yucatan coast, its sustained winds could be 160 mph, with gusts as high as 195 mph — wreaking new havoc on an area heavily damaged just two years ago by Hurricane Wilma.

Saturday morning, as Dean roiled the open waters south of Puerto Rico, the storm’s maximum sustained winds neared 150 mph with higher gusts, putting it at Category 4 intensity and making it the strongest storm so far of the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season.

The storm could force NASA to cut short the space shuttle Endeavour’s flight if Dean heads toward Mission Control in Houston, Reuters reported.

NASA shortened Saturday’s spacewalk and prepared for a possible Tuesday landing — one day earlier than scheduled. Bringing Endeavour back early would allow NASA to complete the flight before Mission Control would have to be evacuated, Reuters reported.

“We’d really like to protect an option to be able to end the mission on Tuesday,” mission management team chairman Leroy Cain said, according to Reuters.

The Associated Press reported several deaths and significant damage on the islands of St. Lucia, Dominica and Martinique.  Watch wind whip St. Kitts »

Dean is forecast to reach Category 5 strength — the highest rating on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity — later in the day Saturday, with winds of at least 151 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“On this track the core of the hurricane will be moving south of the Dominican Republic later today and south of Haiti tonight,” the center reported at 8 a.m. Saturday.

With long-range computer models showing Dean turning north after striking Mexico, officials in Texas and Louisiana launched preparations for a possible midweek landfall.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency Friday and activated the state’s emergency response center. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called Dean an imminent threat and took steps to deploy emergency responders to the coast.

“It is imperative that Texans living along the coast pay close attention to threatening weather conditions and heed the warnings of their local leaders,” Perry said.

Southern Texas was still dealing with flooding caused by Tropical Depression Erin, which dumped heavy rain on the region late in the week. The storm has left six people dead and one missing, according to The Associated Press. 

Blanco, whose state was devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, urged Louisianans to “be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.”

At 8 a.m. Saturday, the center of Dean — which crossed through the Leeward Islands late Thursday and early Friday as a Category 2 storm — was 615 miles east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and 250 miles south-southeast of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, moving west at about 17 mph, according to the hurricane center.

The storm was forecast to strengthen as it moves across open waters south of Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola, which comprises the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

“On this track the core of the hurricane will be moving south of the Dominican Republic later today and south of Haiti tonight,” the center reported at 5 a.m.

A hurricane warning remained in effect Saturday for the southern coast of Hispaniola. That means hurricane conditions, including winds of at least 74 mph, were expected within 24 hours.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were still under a tropical storm warning as Dean passed to the south. Tropical storm conditions, including winds in excess of 39 mph, were expected within 24 hours. The weather center said those warnings would likely be discontinued later in the day.

The hurricane center forecast rainfall of up to 5 inches in Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which could trigger flash floods.

The latest forecast shows Dean making an almost direct hit on Jamaica Sunday, by which time maximum sustained winds could be at 155 mph, according to the hurricane center.

A hurricane watch was posted for the island nation of 2.7 million people. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller convened a meeting of the national disaster committee Friday and put the armed forces, police and emergency services on high alert.

“Everyone must take the threat very seriously and put in place all necessary safety measures,” Simpson Miller said.

Similar preparations were being made in the Cayman Islands, which lie beyond Jamaica in Dean’s path.

“I implore every resident to prepare for the hurricane,” Kurt Tibbetts, head of the local government in the British overseas territory, said Friday. “Take no chances. Don’t second guess.”

Tropical storm watches were also posted for Cuba’s southeastern coast, including the provinces of Camaguey and Guantanamo.

The long-range forecast shows Dean skirting south of Cuba and making landfall in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, near Cancun, on Monday, before emerging back into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.  See Hurricane Dean’s projected route »

The storm is expected to weaken over land, but forecasters predicted it would remain at least a Category 3 storm, with winds of at least 111 mph, once it gets loose again in the Gulf.

The forecast path has the storm making landfall late Wednesday near the Texas-Mexico border. But because of the unpredictable movements of hurricanes, forecasters cautioned that the storm could affect coastal areas from central and northern Mexico northward along almost the entire Texas coast.

If Dean hits the United States mainland as a hurricane, it would be the first hurricane landfall since October 2005, when Wilma ripped across south Florida.

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