Hurricane Dean has begun lashing Belize and Mexico's Caribbean coast with high winds and driving rain.  In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports weather forecasters say residents should prepare for a very powerful storm.

U.S. forecasters said hurricane Dean had strengthened into a category five storm with sustained winds of about 257 kilometers per hour and possible rainfall of up to 50 centimeters. They said the hurricane was capable of ripping out trees and signposts, and causing serious damages to buildings in its path.

Scores of tourists fled the Mexican resort town of Cancun and other nearby areas ahead of the approaching storm. Mexico's state oil company also evacuated workers from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hugh Cobb, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Miami, said the hurricane was moving west and was gaining strength from warm gulf waters.

"It has been over warm water, the warmest waters of the basin. Environmental conditions aloft have been favorable the whole time," he said. "So we are just seeing it take advantage of that and intensify."

Sunday, the hurricane passed south of the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, where it uprooted trees, flooded roads and destroyed some buildings. Officials in Jamaica said two people were killed by the storm, which is now blamed for 11 deaths across the Caribbean.

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.