Hurricane Ivan battered the Cayman Islands with ferocious 150mph winds today, threatening a direct hit as it flooded homes and ripped up roofs and trees.
Ivan has left at least 60 people dead in its path of destruction across the Caribbean, and was headed next for a direct hit on western Cuba and the southeastern United States.
The hurricane, which grew to the most powerful Category 5 scale with 165 mph winds on Saturday, lost some strength before it began tearing into the wealthy island chain, a popular scuba diving destination and banking centre that benefits from strict building codes.
“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,” he said, “The air is just foam.”
Emergency officials said residents from all parts of the island were reporting roofs blown off 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” this morning with peak winds of 150 mph.
“We know there is damage and it is severe,” said Wes Emanuel of the Government Information Service.
Though there were no immediate reports of injuries in the Cayman Islands, the death toll elsewhere rose as hospital officials in Jamaica reported four more deaths, for a total of 15 there. At least 34 were killed in Grenada, where the hurricane left widespread destruction. Scattered deaths occurred on other islands and in Venezuela.
Ivan was projected to make a direct hit on western Cuba tomorrow before moving into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, nearing the Florida Keys and parts of Florida’s Gulf coast.
A tropical storm watch was posted this 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 79,000 residents in the island chain. Streets, bars, hotels and shops in Key West were mostly empty, even as officials in the Florida Keys said they were “cautiously optimistic” the hurricane could spare the Keys from its worst winds.
The Cayman Islands have strong building codes that are strictly enforced, but Ivan’s raging winds were shaking the reinforced concrete building housing the hurricane committee at Owen Roberts International Airport, and flooding forced officials to evacuate the ground floor.
“It’s constructed to withstand this kind of thing, so that makes you concerned for buildings that are not as well constructed,” Emanuel said.
Officials reported 3,000 people had filled all shelters on Grand Cayman and about 750 in Cayman Brac island were in shelters. Many people in Cayman Brac had fled to caves that historically have provided shelter from bad hurricanes.
Electricity and water service was cut before the storm to prevent electrocutions and damage to plants.
In Cuba, President Fidel Castro said his government had mobilised to save lives and property.
“This country is prepared to face this hurricane,” Castro said. Ivan is the most powerful storm to threaten the country since the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.
About 800,000 people across the island of 11.2 million had been evacuated by this morning, with most seeking refuge with relatives, the official Prensa Latina news agency reported.