Texas officials prepare for Hurricane Dean, even as state dries out from Tropical Storm Erin

HOUSTON (AP) - Officials opened emergency operations centers, moved inmates to prisons deeper inland and passed out sandbags along portions of the Texas coast as Hurricane Dean barreled toward the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Dean was several days away and its path was still uncertain, but officials weren't taking any chances. Even if the hurricane continues a steady westward course toward Mexico, parts of the already saturated state could be flooded by the storm's outer bands.

East Texas has already had an unusually rainy summer, and the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin caused flooding over the weekend that was blamed for one death in Taylor County and forced about 1,000 people to evacuate homes in Abilene.

As of 8 a.m. EDT Monday, Dean was about 440 miles east of Belize City and was traveling west at near 21 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.

The hurricane had 150 mph sustained winds, and experts said it could intensify to a Category 5 storm, with sustained winds of 156 mph or greater, before slamming into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula late Monday. A hurricane warning was in effect for the coast of Belize, the Cayman Islands and the Yucatan Peninsula as far north as Cancun.

With Dean on the way, officials in Cameron County, at Texas' southern tip, opened emergency operations centers and urged residents to evacuate ahead of the storm.

"Our mission is very simple. It's to get people out of the kill zone, to get people out of the danger area, which is the coastline of Texas," said Johnny Cavazos, the county's chief emergency director.

Unlike the devastating hurricanes of 2005, Katrina and Rita, Dean wasn't expected to swing far enough north to endanger the gulf's key oil and gas drilling regions, and a drop in oil prices Monday reflected that. Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Chevron said they would evacuate nonessential personnel from deep water facilities but production would continue at normal levels.

But Dean was clearly a danger to anything in its path. The storm had already killed eight people on its destructive march across the Caribbean. Jamaica was spared a direct hit Sunday night, but the storm still uprooted trees and tore roofs from homes as it skirted the island's southern coast.

In Brownsville over the weekend, a Home Depot ran out of plywood as residents rushed to board up windows, and about 60 people waited in line for a new shipment to arrive. Other customers crowded the store scooping up batteries, generators and flashlights, assistant store manager Edward Gonzalez said.

"We're hoping it misses us, but it is a huge, huge storm," said Gonzalez. "Everyone says they're not going to take chances."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry mobilized the National Guard and search-and-rescue teams, shipped 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of gasoline to gas stations in the Rio Grande Valley, and got a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration from President Bush. The state also sent six C-130 aircraft to Cameron County in case any critically ill patients needed to be evacuated. Hundreds of buses were on standby for possible evacuations.

In the resort town of South Padre Island, city officials distributed sandbags after a state of emergency was declared.

Three Texas prisons near the coast and a youth facility also relocated inmates and staff farther inland. Michelle Lyons, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman said Sunday night that the move had gone smoothly.

Even baseball was called off as a precaution. The United League canceled its final three regular season minor league baseball games.

"With four of our teams playing in the Rio Grande Valley and the impending threat of Hurricane Dean hitting landfall in the Valley, public safety necessitates this action," League President Craig Brasfield said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)