Hurricane Ivan slams Grand Cayman Islands
Published: Sunday, September 12, 2004
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 20:07
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," on Monday. 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 5 p.m. EDT, 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 Monday.
It was 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 of up to eight feet above normal tide levels.
While 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."