Hurricane Dean is continuing its path west through the Caribbean, where it was expected to hit the Yucatan peninsula early Tuesday. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the storm earlier passed near Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, where most communities escaped serious damage.

The governments in Mexico and Belize issued hurricane warnings ahead of the storm, and braced for powerful wind and rain. In the Mexican resort town of Cancun, scores of tourists packed the airport in search of flights leaving the area ahead of the storm. Mexico's state oil company also began evacuating workers from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Weather forecasters said early Monday the storm was a category four hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 240 kilometers per hour and possible rainfall of up to 50 centimeters.

Michelle Minelli, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Miami, said the storm was expected to get stronger as it entered warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

"Some strengthening is expected today, and Dean is likely to become a category five hurricane prior to making landfall over the Yucatan peninsula very early Tuesday morning," she said.

Earlier, the hurricane's eye passed south of the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, where it snapped trees, tore off roofs and flooded streets. Officials in both places said they were spared the worst of the storm, however, and no casualties were reported immediately.

In south Florida, businessman Leo Benjamin said he managed to catch a late flight out of Jamaica before the storm, but three members of his missionary team did not. He said he spoke by telephone with them late Sunday, as the storm battered the home where they took refuge in Kingston.

"They were hearing trees snap. In the house they were in, the roof came off, all the shingles came off," he said. "They were spending their time mopping up water, and they watched the house next door lose a lot of their shingles also."

Benjamin said he spoke by telephone early Monday with residents of Jamaica's north coast, where people expressed relief that storm damage was relatively minor.

Since last week, Hurricane Dean has been blamed for at least eight deaths in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the island of Dominica.

In the southern United States, officials in Texas and Louisiana have ordered emergency crews to monitor the storm for possible heavy rainfall and winds.

Officials with the U.S. space agency have ordered the shuttle Endeavour to return to earth Tuesday, one day ahead of schedule, because of weather concerns at Mission Control in Houston, Texas.