Ivan Strengthens; At Least 65 Dead

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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. It then strengthened to Category 5 as it moved Monday on course for Cuba, the Florida Panhandle and Mexico.

At 2 a.m. Monday, Ivan's eye was about 160 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba. Hurricane-force winds extend 90 miles and tropical storm-force winds out to 200 miles. Ivan is moving west-northwest near 9 mph and is expected to pass near or over Cuba Monday evening.

In Florida, the most serious threat was originally thought to be for the Keys - triggering an evacuation order Sunday for the islands' 79,000 residents - and a tropical storm warning remains in effect. But forecasters now say the greatest danger is to the Panhandle, possibly on Wednesday.

For Florida, Ivan's threat comes on the heels of two other major hurricanes: Charley and Frances.

Because of Frances, about 335,000 homes and businesses in 28 counties are still without electricity. Charley's insured losses are estimated at just under $7 billion and Frances is pegged at $2 billion to $4 billion.

Ivan has killed at least 65 people across the Caribbean and is expected to strike western Cuba, where residents have dubbed the storm "Ivan the Terrible," on Monday. More than 1 million Cubans have been evacuated from their homes.

The hurricane, which grew to Category 5 on Saturday, lost some strength before tearing into the wealthy Cayman Islands chain, a popular scuba diving destination and banking center. It is the fourth Atlantic hurricane of the season.

"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."

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.

The Cayman Islands have stringent building codes that are strictly enforced, but 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.

Ambulances were three feet underwater. Flying debris tore off some storm shutters, and at least one resort lost its boat dock.

Hundreds left the Caymans on chartered flights before the hurricane came.

Officials reported 3,000 people filled shelters on Grand Cayman and about 750 are in shelters on Cayman Brac island. Hundreds in Cayman Brac fled to caves on high ground that historically have provided shelter from bad hurricanes.

Ivan is projected to pass near or over Cuba's western end by Monday 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 up to 8 feet above normal tide levels.

While Ivan made a nearly 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 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.

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. Police in Grenada reported five more deaths for a total of 39.

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

In Cuba, the threatened area includes densely populated Havana, where traffic was light Sunday morning as most took shelter.

"This country is prepared to face this hurricane," said President Fidel Castro, as 1.3 million people across the island of 11.2 million were evacuated from the path of the most powerful storm to threaten Cuba 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, who lost her home in a hurricane two years ago, moved her valuables to a nearby building.

"We've lived through others, and that is why we are afraid," Cruz said. "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.

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.

On the east coast of Mexico, hundreds of people abandoned fishing settlements on the island of Holbox as Ivan approached. The resort city of Cancun opened shelters and closed off all beaches as winds picked up on the coast.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Javier, with sustained winds of 75 mph, is building up strength Sunday far off the Pacific coast, meaning Mexico could face two hurricanes in one week.

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

Hundreds of trees and dozens of telephone poles were scattered along the coastal road in Negril, a resort town in northwestern Jamaica.

Waves were seen breaking more than 30 feet high in Negril on Sunday, crashing over a seawall and splashing over the rooftops of single-story hotel bungalows and restaurants, damaging many.

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

Uprooted palm trees lay atop buildings and against walls, and armed security guards kept watch outside the shuttered hotels.

Residents said most of the damage happened late Saturday. The waterfront Rick's Cafe was pummeled by waves that caved in the ceiling, smashing the bar and leaving the restaurant strewn with scraps of plywood.

"Sometimes the sea is rough around here, but never have I seen this kind of damage," said security guard Lascellers Mellers, standing outside the ruined restaurant.
  • Lloyd Vries

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