Hurricane Ivan slams Grand Cayman with ferocious winds

Monday, September 13, 2004

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands -- Hurricane Ivan battered the Cayman Islands with ferocious 150-mph winds Sunday, flooding homes, ripping off roofs and toppling trees three stories tall as its powerful eye thundered past just offshore.

Ivan has killed at least 60 people across the Caribbean and was expected to strike western Cuba, where residents have dubbed the storm "Ivan the Terrible," today. More than 1 million Cubans were evacuated from their homes.

The storm also could brush the Florida Keys and parts of Florida's Gulf Coast. Mexico issued a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning for the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula.

The hurricane, which grew to the most powerful Category 5 with 165 mph winds Saturday, lost some strength before tearing into the wealthy Cayman Islands chain, a popular scuba diving destination and banking center.

"It's as bad as it can possibly get," Justin Uzzell, 35, said by telephone from his fifth-floor refuge in Grand Cayman. "It's a horizontal blizzard. The air is just foam."

High winds prevented officials from assessing damage immediately. But Donnie Ebanks, deputy chairman of the British territory's National Hurricane Committee, estimated that as many as half of Grand Cayman's 15,000 homes were damaged.

At 4 p.m., Ivan's eye was about 225 miles southeast of Cuba's western tip. Hurricane-force winds extended 90 miles and tropical storm-force winds extended 175 miles. Ivan was moving west-northwest at near 10 mph and was expected to turn northwest by today.

It was projected to pass near or over Cuba's western end by this afternoon or evening. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm surge could reach 25 feet with dangerous, battering waves.

The Cayman Islands were better prepared for the punishment than Grenada and Jamaica, which were slammed by Ivan in the past week -- though Jamaica was spared a direct hit Saturday. The Caymans have strict building codes and none of the shantytowns and tin shacks common elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The Hurricane Center said ham radio operators on Grand Cayman reported that people were standing on the roofs of homes because of storm surges of up to 8 feet above normal tide levels.

Nearly direct hitWhile it was nearly a direct hit on Grand Cayman, the eye of the storm did not make landfall, passing instead over water just south of the island, said Rafael Mojica, a Hurricane Center meteorologist.

Still, emergency officials said residents from all parts of the island were reporting blown-off roofs and flooded homes as Ivan's shrieking winds and driving rain approached Grand Cayman, the largest of three islands that comprise the British territory of 45,000 people.

The government said Grand Cayman was "experiencing the most severe portion of Hurricane Ivan" on Sunday morning.

"We know there is damage and it is severe," said Wes Emanuel of the Government Information Service.

The airport runway was flooded and trees were wrenched from their roots, including a giant Cayman mahogany next to the government headquarters in downtown George Town. Radio Cayman went off the air temporarily before resuming broadcasts.

Though there were no immediate reports of injuries in the Caymans, the death toll elsewhere rose as hospital officials in Jamaica reported four more deaths, for a total of 15. At least 34 people were killed in Grenada, where the hurricane left widespread destruction. Scattered deaths occurred on other islands and in Venezuela.

A tropical storm watch was posted Sunday morning for the lower third of the 120-mile Florida Keys, from below Marathon through Key West and the Dry Tortugas.

A mandatory evacuation was ordered for tourists and the island chain's 79,000 residents. Streets, bars, hotels and shops in Key West were mostly empty, even as Keys officials said they were "cautiously optimistic" the hurricane could spare the islands from its worst winds.

In Cuba, the threatened area includes densely populated Havana, where traffic was light Sunday morning as most took shelter. About 1.3 million people across the island of 11.2 million were evacuated, with most seeking refuge with relatives.

"This country is prepared to face this hurricane," President Fidel Castro said Saturday night. The storm is the most powerful to threaten this island nation since Castro came to power in 1959.

In western Cuba, dozens of families in the coastal town of La Coloma bundled up clothes, medicine, furniture and television sets before boarding buses to shelters.

"I feel sad leaving my house on its own," said Ricardo Hernandez, a 44-year-old fisherman on his way to the inland capital of Pinar del Rio province. "But I have to protect myself and save the lives of my family."

Iberia Cruz, 50, lost her home in a hurricane two years ago. Since then, she has lived in a small room behind a community center, waiting for the government to rebuild her house.

"We've lived through others, and that is why we are afraid," Cruz said while moving her valuables to the second floor of a nearby building. "The ocean could pierce the town."

The last Category 5 storm to make landfall in the Caribbean was Hurricane David, which devastated the Dominican Republic in 1979, Mojica said. Hurricane Mitch was a Category 5 storm in the Caribbean Sea in 1998, but it hit Central America.

Only three Category 5 storms are known to have hit the United States. The last was Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida in 1992, killing 43 people and causing more than $30 billion in damage.

Ivan was projected to dump up to 1 foot of rain in the Caymans, possibly causing flash floods and mud slides, the Hurricane Center said. Its 150 mph winds were just below the 155 mph level qualifying it as a Category 5 storm, the strongest, capable of causing catastrophic damage.

With Ivan approaching, hundreds of people left the Caymans on chartered flights, and most of Little Cayman's 150 residents were brought to the big island.

Officials reported 3,000 people filled all shelters on Grand Cayman, while about 750 people in Cayman Brac island were in shelters. Many people in Cayman Brac fled to caves that historically have provided shelter from bad hurricanes.

"I don't have word from people in the caves. But I'm not worried about them at all," district commissioner Kenny Ryan told Cayman radio.

Ivan's raging winds shook the reinforced concrete building housing the hurricane committee at Owen Roberts International Airport, and flooding forced officials to evacuate the ground floor. Windows were blown out of the control tower, Ebanks said.

"It's constructed to withstand this kind of thing, so that makes you concerned for buildings that are not as well-constructed," Emanuel said.

Jamaica, an island of 2.6 million people, was saved from a direct hit when the hurricane unexpectedly wobbled and lurched to the west Saturday, but it still suffered heavy damage as 25-foot waves crashed onto beachfronts, destroying homes and toppling trees.

Waves of 60 feet -- as high as a multistory building -- were recorded in the western tourist resort of Negril and caused substantial property damage, RJR Radio reported Sunday.

"Whatever our religion, faith or persuasions may be, we must give thanks," Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson told the nation.

A number of Jamaicans in northern Montego Bay gave thanks Sunday that Ivan had largely spared them.

"We picked up our armor and prayed," the Rev. John Schweikert told about 400 parishioners at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.

Some people were stranded in flooded homes in the north-central parish of St. Anne near Ocho Rios, and emergency officials said they were trying to get a helicopter to evacuate them.

In seaside Port Royal, residents began sweeping out mounds of sand, dead tree branches and coconut-sized rocks kicked up by waves.

"It's scary to see the ocean in front of your house," said 34-year-old Andrea Taylor, who was worried about her sister in the Cayman Islands. "It's so flat there, I don't know how they'll take it."

Jamaican police killed two alleged looters and four officers were wounded in shootouts with armed looters, officials said.

Ivan also killed five people in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados, and four children in the Dominican Republic.

The fourth major hurricane of the Atlantic season, Ivan damaged dozens of homes in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent on Tuesday before making a direct hit on Grenada, which was left a wasteland of flattened houses. It also destroyed nearly 100 houses and damaged hundreds more in impoverished Haiti.

Associated Press reporters Stevenson Jacobs and Peter Prengaman in Jamaica and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana contributed to this report.

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