Jamaica dodges direct hit from Ivan

Last-minute `wobble' pushes storm's eye from island's capital

Cuba likely to be struck today

Hurricane up to top strength as it surges through Caribbean

September 12, 2004|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PROVIDENCIALES, Turks & Caicos Islands - Hurricane Ivan dealt a mercifully glancing blow to Jamaica yesterday but immediately rebounded to a potent Category 5 storm and raged through open waters toward the Cayman Islands and Cuba. The death toll rose to 56.

The storm thrashed Jamaica with winds as high as 150 mph, but a last-minute westward "wobble" diverted the eye just before it hit the populous capital, Kingston, sparing the island nation a far worse disaster, public safety officials reported.

Ivan's winds had intensified to 165 mph by late afternoon, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said, predicting that the most powerful storm to sweep the Caribbean in a decade likely would make landfall in western Cuba sometime today.

Meteorologists cautioned Jamaicans that they were not yet out of danger. Heavy rainfall was threatening flash floods and mudslides for much of the western part of the country, the hurricane center's Lixion Avila said.

As Ivan continued to threaten Florida with its third hurricane blow in less than a month, the westward tack that sent the eye across Jamaica's sparsely populated Clarendon and St. Elizabeth parishes instead of Kingston prompted storm trackers to predict that it might veer into the Gulf of Mexico instead of making a direct hit on the Sunshine State.

Jamaicans, many of whom had ignored evacuation orders to secure their homes against looters, expressed relief that they had dodged widespread destruction and casualties.

"If we didn't get the eye with the winds we experienced, I cannot imagine what it would have been like if the eye did hit us directly," said Michael Muirhead, a tourism industry executive living in the Stony Hill suburb of Kingston who weathered Ivan's passing at home with his dog, Gucci. "It was ferocious up here. That storm just had no mercy."

Sporadic looting

Airports in Kingston and Montego Bay remained closed, but Air Jamaica reported that it expected to begin returning its planes today from the southeast United States, where they had been flown for safekeeping ahead of the hurricane.

Eleven people were killed in Jamaica, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson said in a statement. The deaths included two children who drowned near Kingston and a family of four who died in south-central Clarendon, said Sgt. Steve Brown of the Jamaican Police Force emergency response center. He added that a family of eight was also missing from a flooded area west of Kingston. RJR Radio also said an elderly woman died when a tree fell on her home.

Sporadic looting afflicted some areas of Kingston, but the police deployed in force, chasing off those preying on the empty shops and shuttered businesses.

Damage assessment had not gotten under way late yesterday as winds slowed but remained at tropical storm force, said Ronald Sacey of the Constabulary Communications Network, a public safety information service. He said recovery and emergency response teams were on the scene as of late morning but were dealing first with security threats, such as the need to deter looting.

At the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency, based in Barbados, officials said relief efforts remained focused on Grenada, where eight more bodies were discovered yesterday, bringing the toll in that tiny Windward Island nation to 34 since Ivan blasted through earlier in the week. The six Jamaicans known to have died, plus fatalities earlier in Venezuela and Tobago, brought the storm's toll to 56.

"We're still working to get foodstuffs in as well as temporary beds and shelter," said CDERA aid coordinator Celia Skeete, estimating that 90,000 people - more than 90 percent of Grenada's population - were in need of assistance.

The International Federation of the Red Cross appealed for $1.4 million in donations for aid to Grenada.

Cayman evacuations

In the wealthy Cayman Islands and in Cuba, people braced for the worst.

Hundreds of Caymanians have fled aboard 10 charter flights scheduled for an evacuation. Yesterday, most of the 150 residents of Little Cayman evacuated to Grand Cayman and about 755 people on Cayman Brac - more than half the population - moved into shelters, officials reported.

Also, more than 600 people on the main Grand Cayman island moved into shelters. The British territory has about 45,000 residents.

Cuba has upgraded a hurricane watch to a warning for the threatened western part of the island. Residents of Cojimar, a seaside community once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, cut down trees, boarded up windows and prayed in anticipation of the storm.

"If God doesn't help us, I think this is going to be extremely tragic," said Maria del Carmen Boza, a 65-year-old retiree waiting to buy crackers and canned food at a small corner store. "All of Cuba is worried. This looks like it's going to be really dangerous."

National radio exhorted Cubans to "put into practice the solidarity that characterizes our nation" by inviting neighbors in vulnerable homes to seek shelter in more stable buildings. More than 170,000 people across the island were evacuated by yesterday morning.

Fourth of the season

Ivan, the fourth major hurricane of the Atlantic season, 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.

The U.S. State Department was arranging for the evacuations of all Americans from Grenada. The first plane left for Trinidad yesterday carrying 49 people, said Consul General Bob Fretz of the U.S. Embassy in Barbados.

East of Jamaica in impoverished Haiti, the extreme edge of Ivan's raging winds destroyed 68 homes and damaged dozens more.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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