The storm’s maximum sustained winds increased to 120 kph (75 mph), just above the threshold for a hurricane, said the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami.
Ernesto could grow into a Category 3 hurricane by Thursday, menacing a broad swath of the Gulf Coast including hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, the hurricane centre said earlier.
Category 3 Hurricane Katrina struck the city a year ago.
“It’s over nice warm Caribbean waters, and far enough off the coast of Haiti that it is still strengthening now,” said Ron Goodman, a forecaster a the centre.
The storm, moving northwest at 15 kph (nine mph), was projected to make landfall in Haiti on Sunday afternoon, dropping heavy rain that could cause deadly mudslides in the heavily deforested Caribbean country. Ernesto was expected to cross west-central Cuba on Tuesday night before continuing into the Gulf of Mexico.
“There will be probably be a restrengthening after it leaves the Cuban coast to a Category 2, and Wednesday night it will be west of Fort Myers as Category 3. That’s the current thinking,” Goodman said, referring to the city on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Ernesto was expected to bring rain and wind to southern Florida by early Tuesday, and the hurricane centre encouraged the Florida Keys to monitor the storm. It was projected to strengthen off western Florida on Wednesday but the location of any US landfall was unclear.
Haiti issued a hurricane warning for its southern coast.
Hurricane watches were in effect for Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and eastern provinces of Cuba, meaning hurricane conditions are possible over the next 36 hours.
Emergency officials in Haiti evacuated some residents from low-lying areas in the northwest city of Gonaives, which was devastated by Tropical Storm Jeanne in 2004.
The storm was expected to pass yesterday afternoon near the tip of Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, where officials said there was heavy rain but no reported damage. “There’s no plan to evacuate now but if there’s more rain later we may have to,” said Adel Nazaire, coordinator with Haiti’s civil protection agency.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller put the country’s security forces on alert and said at a press conference on Saturday that all the island’s shelters were open. “Ensure that the children are not left alone and make it easier for rescue workers,” she said.
Jamaica issued advisories by radio and television for residents in low-lying areas across the island to be prepared to evacuate if necessary.
At 8 am (1200 GMT), the fifth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season was centred about 185 kilometres (115 miles) southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and 340 kilometres (210 miles) southeast of Guantanamo, Cuba.
Heavy showers hit Kingston on Saturday afternoon, causing traffic jams as motorists tried to reach stores and people waited in long lines at supermarkets, filling grocery carts with canned goods, batteries and candles.
“It’s nature and we can’t stop it from taking its course,” said taxi driver Patrick Wallace, 55, as he left a supermarket laden with canned goods. Christine Williams, a manager at a Kingston hardware store, said people were scooping up material to protect their homes.
“They are buying mainly tarpaulin, plywood and building material. We haven’t stopped cashing (ringing people up) from morning,” she said.
In the British territory of the Caymans, people packed gas stations, hardware stores and supermarkets, and formed long lines to withdraw money from cash machines. Businesses also boarded up.
Debbie Curigliano, of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, said she and her husband would ride out the storm at their resort in Seven Mile Beach.
“I am sure they (the hotel) have been through this before, so I am going to put all my faith in the hotel, and I am sure they will guide me right through it,” she said.
In Haiti, emergency officials went on local radio to warn people living in flimsy shantytowns on the southern coast to seek shelter in schools and churches. The hurricane centre said life-threatening flash floods and mudslides were possible.
“These people could be in great danger,” said Adel Nazaire, a coordinator with Haiti’s civil protection agency. “Flooding is the biggest concern because a lot of residents live along the rivers and the sea.”
Fears that the storm could damage offshore energy facilities in the Gulf of Mexico sent oil and natural gas prices higher.
BP PLC had said it would evacuate some 800 of its 2,400 workers from the Gulf of Mexico by late Saturday due to the storm. The evacuated workers are not essential staff, most associated with long-term projects that have not begun producing, BP spokesman Hugh DePland told Dow Jones Newswires.
Meanwhile, former Tropical Storm Debby, now a depression with maximum winds of 30 mph, was expected to stay over the open Atlantic, posing only a threat to ships. At 5 am EDT, the centre of the storm was about 1,435 miles west-southwest of the Azores.