Hurricane Ivan Rolls Toward Cuba
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (AP) _ A strengthened Hurricane Ivan headed toward the tip of western Cuba with 160 mph winds Monday after pummeling the Cayman Islands with flooding that swamped homes and fierce winds that ripped off roofs.
The slow-moving, extremely dangerous Category 5 storm, one of the strongest on record to hit the region, killed at least 68 people across the Caribbean before reaching the Caymans, and threatens millions more in its projected path.
Parts of low-lying Grand Cayman, the largest island in the territory of 45,000 people, were swamped under up to 8 feet of water Monday and residents stood on rooftops of flooded homes. A car floated by the second story of one building, and a resident called Radio Cayman to report seeing two bodies floating off the beach. Police said they could not confirm the report.
Ivan intensified overnight, with maximum sustained winds at 160 mph and gusts up to 195 mph, and headed for western Cuba, threatening floods in Pinar del Rio province, the center of tobacco growing and the biggest source for the island’s famed cigar industry. About 1.3 million Cubans were evacuated from their homes, most taking refuge in the sturdier houses of relatives, co-workers or neighbors.
Planting season doesn’t begin until the end of October and remnants of January’s harvest are protected in curing houses, said Cuba’s top grower, Alejandro Robaina.
``There is almost always some damage from the hurricanes, but I think we are going to escape the worst of it,″ Robaina told The Associated Press. ``I think we will be able to stand it.″
Ivan _ at Category 5, the highest level on the Saffir-Simpson scale and capable of catastrophic damage _ was projected to pass near or over Cuba’s western end by Monday afternoon or evening on a path toward the U.S. gulf coast.
President Fidel Castro toured western Cuba Monday morning, stopping to discuss preparations with defense officials in the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, where residents shouted ``Fidel! Fidel!″
``We are so happy to have him close to us,″ said 78-year-old Elsa Ramos, when Castro visited the tobacco-growing town of San Juan y Martinez. ``Fidel protects us from all bad things.″
As in past hurricanes, Castro has taken an enormous interest in emergency preparations, appearing the last few nights on state television programs focusing on Ivan’s approach.
Cuba’s Isla de Juventud, or Isle of Youth, southwest of the main island, began experiencing 50 mph winds and intermittent rain early Monday, the official Prensa Latina news service said.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the center might miss the tip of Cuba and could move near the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula in the next 24 hours.
At 2 p.m. EDT, Ivan was centered 70 miles south-southeast of the western tip of Cuba, and was headed toward the northwest at about 8 mph, a general motion it was expected to continue through midday Tuesday, the Miami-based hurricane center said.
Ivan was expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, nearing parts of Florida’s west coast still recovering from Hurricane Charley and threatening to make landfall in the Florida panhandle, Mississippi or Louisiana. Mexico’s northeastern Yucatan peninsula also was on alert.
``Right now, we’re looking anywhere from the Florida panhandle to Louisiana,″ Jennifer Pralgo, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Center, said. ``We do feel that the southern portion of Florida will be in the clear on this.″
Ivan killed at least 15 people in Jamaica, 39 in Grenada, five in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados and four children in the Dominican Republic. On Monday, officials in Haiti said the storm killed three people there Saturday.
Oil prices shot up nearly $1.50 a barrel Monday as oil and natural gas producers evacuated rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell Oil said it would finish evacuating personnel from platforms in the eastern gulf by Monday and the central gulf by Wednesday.
In Jamaica, stores and shelters filled with more than 15,000 people were running short of food, according to Nadene Newsome of Jamaica’s emergency relief agency.
About 98 percent of the island was still without power, 40 roads were still blocked by debris and more than 700 people evacuated from the island’s southern parishes where floodwaters reached as high as 15 feet. The airport in Kingston reopened Monday.
Ivan’s eye skirted Jamaica’s south coast Sunday, then passed just south of Grand Cayman, said Rafael Mojica, a Hurricane Center meteorologist.
Though Ivan’s center didn’t directly make landfall in the Caymans’ three-island chain, the storm lashed the wealthy British territory all day Sunday with 150 mph winds, and the rains kept coming through the night.
``The island looks like a war zone,″ said Diana Uzzell, a business manager on Grand Cayman where the storm’s winds flung a liquor store sign into the Scotia Bank building.
Others called their families, many of whom fled to Houston.
``There’s nothing to come home to,″ Gary Rutty told his wife, Angel, an evacuee who was staying in Houston with their three children, ages 2, 5 and 7.
An estimated one-quarter to one-half of the 15,000 homes on the island suffered some damage said Donnie Ebanks, deputy chairman of its National Hurricane Committee.
``We know there is damage and it is severe,″ said Wes Emanuel of the Cayman Islands’ Government Information Service.
Patchy cell phone service was restored as dawn broke in the Caymans, a popular scuba diving destination and banking center.
The airport runway was flooded and windows shattered in the control tower, Ebanks said. The winds uprooted trees as tall as three stories.
Mexico issued a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning for the northeastern Yucatan, and hundreds abandoned fishing settlements on the nearby island of Holbox. The resort city of Cancun opened shelters and closed beaches and hotel owners boarded over windows. The tourist island of Cozumel shut down its airport and halted the arrival of cruise ships.
Associated Press reporters Loren Brown in Grenada, Stevenson Jacobs and Peter Prengaman in Jamaica, and Vanessa Arrington and Andrea Rodriguez in Cuba contributed to this report.
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