BRIDGETOWN, Barbados -- Hurricane Ivan churned toward the Caribbean on Monday, packing sustained winds of 115 mph and threatening to hit Barbados and other islands, after it strengthened from tropical storm status with unusual speed.
Residents rushed to install storm shutters and schools remained closed in Barbados, where the Category 3 storm -- the fourth major hurricane of the season -- was expected to hit late today.
The hurricane could threaten Florida, but it was too early to tell, said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. A reconnaissance plane measured the storm late Monday.
A hurricane watch was issued for Barbados, an island of 280,000, as well as for St. Lucia and Martinique. A tropical storm watch was issued for Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago.
"We expect it to maintain its strength but it's a smaller storm compared to Frances, so the eye would have to pass directly over some of these islands to cause extensive damage," Blake said.
Ivan weakened Monday, with winds slowing slightly from an earlier 125 mph. But it maintained its Category 3 strength. Forecasters said Ivan could regain force by the time it reaches the Windward Islands.
At 2 p.m., Ivan's center was about 360 miles east-southeast of Barbados, moving west at around 22 mph. Hurricane force winds extend outward up to 35 miles from Ivan's center while tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 140 miles.
Ivan went from being a tropical storm Sunday morning to a category 3 hurricane by the afternoon.
"It is not very common for a tropical system to strengthen so quickly," said Robert Molleda, a meteorologist at the hurricane center.
Barbados Prime Minister Owen Arthur convened an emergency session of the Cabinet, as residents and some business put up hurricane shutters. Islanders rushed to stores to buy supplies like lanterns, kerosene, flashlights, batteries, canned food and bottled water. Motorists lined up at gas stations to fill their tanks.
The new school term was expected to begin Monday, but authorities told children to remain home. Teachers, however, were required to report to help prepare school buildings as shelters.
Ivan is also forecast to move over St. Lucia. Several islands in the Windward chain could also feel the effects, meteorologists said.
"We have a major deadly storm approaching St. Lucia and we need to be prepared," said Dawn French, director of St. Lucia's National Emergency Management Office.
Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony called an emergency planning meeting.
Unlike the Bahamas and the British territory of the Turks and Caicos where Hurricane Frances blew roofs off and snapped trees in half, many of the Windward islands are poorer, with old wooden structures in areas prone to flooding.
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