Florida braced today for the onslaught of its third hurricane in a month, as one of the most powerful storms in recent years, dubbed Ivan, bore down on Jamaica on a path that could bring it over the Florida Keys as soon as Sunday.
With the National Weather Service describing Ivan as "extremely dangerous" and capable of causing "catastrophic damage," a mandatory evacuation order was issued today for "all visitors and non-residents" of the Florida Keys and "all recreational vehicles" there.
Buildings lay in ruins following the passage of Hurricane Ivan over Grenada on Tuesday.
(Jack Russell - Royal Navy via AP)
A statement issued by the service's National Hurricane Center said a mandatory evacuation may be required for all residents in the Keys and Flamingo, Fla., Friday morning, and that residents who wish to leave today "are encouraged to do so."
Many tourists heeded the warning. Cars laden with summer vacation gear streamed north on the spindly, two-lane road that connects Key West with mainland Florida after the evacuation order was issued. Even many storm-hardened locals in Key West, renowned for their nonchalance about hurricanes and their penchant for all-night parties when big winds are on the way, were making plans to flee.
"The general consensus here is everyone just has a really bad feeling about this one; we are all sick to our stomachs," said Sabrina Johnson, who operates the tourist stalwart World Famous Conch Train. "Most of the people I know didn't evacuate for Charley but are taking this one very seriously." She said many people were stocking up on gasoline out of concern that they might not find any after making the 150-mile road trip up to Homestead.
"There isn't a gas can to be bought in town now," she said.
The holdouts, and there are sure to be some, will not have a government-sanctioned place to go. Monroe County officials said they will not open any shelters in the Keys before the storm.
The mandatory evacuation order affects thousands of visitors to the 120-mile long island chain. People in mobile homes were being asked to leave by 6 p.m. today, and Monroe County authorities were expecting to order all 79,000 residents off the islands on Friday.
The most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean in a decade, Ivan killed at least 20 people when it slammed into the tiny island of Grenada Tuesday, destroying an estimated 90 percent of the island's homes. An old prison was among the buildings destroyed, and all the inmates escaped. Also ruined were the residence of Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, Grenada's emergency operations center and many schools.
"We have got a tremendous hit that we never expected," Mitchell told BBC Radio. "You are talking hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. We have declared the country a national disaster." He said the island state's nutmeg industry, a vital sector of the economy, has apparently suffered extensive damage.
After ravaging Grenada, Ivan moved in the direction of Jamaica, which issued a hurricane warning. Several other governments issued hurricane watches, including those of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands and Cuba.
The National Hurricane Center said Ivan was moving west-northwest at 15 mph and would approach Jamaica Friday if it maintains its present track.
"Ivan is an extremely dangerous Category Five hurricane . . . with maximum sustained winds near 160 mph," the center said in an advisory. It said hurricane-force winds extend 60 miles from the storm's eye and tropical storm-force winds reach outward up to 160 miles.
"Storm surge flooding of 3 to 5 feet above normal tide levels, along with large and dangerous battering waves, can be expected near the center of Ivan in the hurricane warning area," it said. It forecast rainfall of five to seven inches, "possibly causing life-threatening flash floods and mud slides," along the path of the hurricane. It said Ivan was expected to fluctuate between a Category 5 and a Category 4 hurricane until reaching Cuba.