After killing at least 54 people in Grenada and Jamaica, Hurricane Ivan blasted the Cayman Islands on Sunday as it continued on a rampage that threatened to hit Cuba and the western sections of storm-weary Florida in the coming days.
Ivan, the strongest storm to hit the Caribbean in a decade, blasted the Caymans with 150 mph winds that ripped roofs off houses, uprooted trees and caused flooding across the British territory. There were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries. Jamaican radio aired an interview Sunday morning with a Jamaican woman who said she and several other people were trapped by the hurricane in an office building on Grand Cayman Island and had been unable to contact emergency workers.
Ivan, which had strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane Saturday, weakened somewhat before hitting the Caymans. The hurricane was moving west-northwest at about 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 National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm surge could reach 25 feet with dangerous, battering waves.
In Cuba, the official Prensa Latina news agency reported that about 800,000 people, out of a population of 11 million, had been evacuated and taken shelter away from the western parts of the island, which are projected to take the brunt of Ivan..
Cuba has suffered severe damage from hurricanes in the past three years. Hurricane Michelle did $1.9 billion in damage in 2001 and the following year the back-to-back storms Isidore and Lili did a total of more than $700 million in damage. Last month, Hurricane Charley hit Cuba before it smashed into Florida, causing $1 billion in damage, destroying or damaging 70,000 homes and killing four people, according to the official newspaper Granma.
Meteorologists projected that Ivan would stay far off the west coast of Florida before weakening somewhat and making landfall Wednesday on the Florida Panhandle or in southern Alabama. Some South Floridians became so confident that they would be spared that they began taking down shutters and plywood that had been up since Hurricane Frances approached more than two weeks ago.
While the forecast eased the worries of the storm-jostled towns of Florida's Gulf Coast, repair crews were working to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of people still without power since Hurricane Frances came ashore Sept. 4. Gov. Jeb Bush has warned that the recovery from Ivan could be equally arduous.
"It won't be quick and it won't be without pain," he said.
Emergency managers in the Florida Keys, the only region in the state under an evacuation order, were cautiously optimistic. They maintained the evacuation order, even as hurricane watches were lifted and replaced with less ominous tropical storm watches.
"We're simply taking no chances," said Greg Artman, a spokesman for the Monroe County Emergency Management Agency, which has overseen the evacuation of the Keys. "We're urging people to sit tight. There's still a big storm out there."
In the wake of Ivan, Jamaicans awoke Sunday feeling thankful that they had not suffered the full fury of a direct strike. But they also began to realize that Jamaica, like Grenada, had suffered damage that officials said would surely reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
At least 15 Jamaicans were killed by Ivan, including a father and three children killed when a retaining wall collapsed on their house near Kingston on Saturday night. On Sunday, downtown Kingston was filled with the sounds of chain saws and machetes hacking up thousands of trees blown down like twigs by Ivan's high winds. Heavily armed police officers patrolled the streets to prevent further looting; officials said five police officers had been wounded and two looters shot to death since Ivan struck.
Prime Minister Percival J. Patterson told reporters that Venezuela and Mexico had agreed to send relief supplies and that members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) were considering a special meeting to discuss help for countries hit by Ivan. Patterson previously said Britain, Canada and the United States had promised emergency aid.
As with Grenada, where officials are still assessing what Prime Minister Keith Mitchell described as "beyond any imagination," the extent of damage to Jamaica was just beginning to come into focus. Roads to some parts of the country were still impassable, communications were spotty in some areas and Sunday was the first day when howling winds had subsided enough to allow officials in airplanes and helicopters to begin making a more comprehensive and systematic assessment of the damage.
"What I've seen is a total disaster," Lenworth Blake, a member of the Jamaican Parliament representing the southwestern parish of St. Elizabeth, said in a radio interview. Blake estimated that 85 percent of the houses in the southeastern part of his parish had been severely damaged.
St. Elizabeth and the other western sections of Jamaica were hit harder than Kingston by Ivan, which skirted the southern coast before turning toward the Caymans. The western end of the island was still being battered by high waves, hurricane-strength winds and driving rains Sunday morning, when a hot sun had begun filtering through the remaining clouds hanging over the capital.
While many Jamaicans were giving thanks that their island had been spared a direct hit, residents of the Caribbean Terrace neighborhood of Kingston returned to their homes late Saturday and Sunday and found barely imaginable scenes of devastation. The development of 78 bungalow homes sits directly on the seafront, not far from the airport in the Harbour View neighborhood. At least 10 of them, those closest to the sea, had been smashed into rubble by Ivan, which destroyed an eight-foot stone-and-concrete seawall before pulverizing them.
"Everything is gone," said Andre Kong, 45, as he stood in the smashed shell of the house where he was raised and stared through a door frame at a pile of debris, wood, mangled metal, sand and rocks where his bedroom had been. "I used to sleep here, mon," he said. "This is shocking."
A couch that had been in his living room sat upside down in the street about 150 yards away, near a twisted refrigerator, toys, tables and clothes that had also been washed out of houses by the storm's massive surges.
Kong said the property was not insured, and its loss would be a major financial blow to the family. He said they would not rebuild the house even though it had been in the family since 1969.
Kong is a government fisheries official who has extensively studied the sea, currents, tides and storm surges. "The sea is my life," he said. "But I just could not imagine that it could do this."
Staff writers Manuel Roig-Franzia in Miami Beach and Manny Fernandez in Key West contributed to this report.