Hurricane Ivan crashed into Jamaica late Friday, inundating coastal areas with two-story-high breakers after government appeals went unheeded by most of the 500,000 residents urged to evacuate.
Only about 2,000 Jamaicans had taken cover in public shelters when the Category 4 hurricane, packing sustained winds of up to 155, mph raged into eastern Jamaica 10 hours later than forecast, slowed but not weakened on its path toward the southeastern United States. At least 37 deaths already had been blamed on Ivan since it revved up east of the Windward Islands a week ago.
At least 26 of the deaths occurred on Grenada, where the full extent of Ivan’s devastating rage as it passed through Tuesday and Wednesday was becoming apparent only Friday because of the loss of power and communications. Friday broadcasts on Caribbean radio stations quoted Prime Minister Keith Mitchell as estimating that 85% of the main island’s housing was a shambles and that the nutmeg plantations that produce the country’s main cash crop had been destroyed.
In Jamaica, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson declared a state of emergency in a national address Friday and urged those who could get to a shelter to do so.
“What we’re experiencing now is only the beginning,” Patterson said as waves rose more than 20 feet over a low-lying causeway leading to the closed airport near Kingston, the capital. “I cannot stress too strongly that Ivan is a dangerous hurricane.”
As winds intensified and word spread of the storm’s devastation elsewhere, many Jamaicans professed determination to tough it out in their homes.
“The wind is strengthening and we’re getting a lot of rain, but so far so good,” said 76-year-old Harry Hawkins, a retired telecom worker hunkered down in his home five miles outside Kingston. He said he was putting his fate “in God’s hands” and going to sleep despite the storm’s howling around him.
Much as Hurricane Frances bogged down last week, adding an agonizing wait to the fear and disruption of millions of lives throughout the Caribbean, Ivan’s progress toward Jamaica slowed as soon as airports, public services and businesses closed, leaving Jamaicans stranded, holed up in the dark and too nervous to sleep.
“Slowing down is not good. It could mean that we could have tropical storm-force winds for an extended period,” Bryan Bambury of Jamaica’s Meteorological Service told reporters, noting that flooding was already occurring in low-lying areas of the capital hours before the full brunt of Ivan made landfall in this country of 2.7 million.
Ivan, the third major storm of the barely half-over hurricane season, was set today to strike the Cayman Islands, home to 43,000, and Cuba, whose 11.2 million residents felt the fury of Hurricane Charley a month ago.
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, was also being hit by tropical storm-force winds that sent thousands fleeing their shantytowns to safer buildings such as churches and schools. Thunderstorms and feeder bands -- the storms thrown off for hundreds of miles from the spiraling hurricane -- imperiled boaters as far away as the Turks and Caicos Islands to the north and the Caribbean shores of South American nations.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center described Ivan as “an extremely dangerous storm” and warned it could intensify after crossing Jamaica, recovering the Category 5 status -- the most severe hurricane level -- it held when it plowed into Grenada.
“I’m not going nowhere. It’s already hit, but I’m staying in the town so they can’t take my things,” said Fiona Boorasingh, an unemployed 30-year-old living in a two-room cinderblock home in Nain, near Mandeville in south-central Jamaica. “Some people moved to shelters but not so many. Some people think they’ll be robbed if they go away.”
Looting raged throughout Jamaica after Gilbert, the last major hurricane to hit the island. That experience dissuaded many Jamaicans from seeking shelter this time. Others said they simply preferred to take their chances in the comfort of their homes with loved ones.
Curiosity drove even those with experience to disregard authorities’ advice to relocate.
“The little boy inside of me, you see, is quietly wanting to see this, this Ivan the Terrible,” said Maurice Thomson, 48, a businessman from the Kingston suburb of Barbican who decided to ride out the storm at home. “The man in me is saying, ‘Look here, this is not worth it. This is devastation.’ ”
Jamaicans insisted they were not cavalier about their safety.
“It’s not that we’ve underestimated it, it’s just that we’re more laid back than the Americans,” said Yolanda Drakapoulos, a public relations worker in Kingston, referring to the panic-buying and U.S. news coverage of hurricane season. “We’re in the middle of it now. It’s really blowing up good stuff out there.”
Kingston’s airport, at the end of a causeway containing the town of Port Royal, was closed and evacuated late Thursday.
About 250 U.S. diplomats, government employees and their families began taking shelter in a secure building in Kingston more than 24 hours before Ivan hit, embassy spokeswoman Orna Blum said.
In Grenada, Prime Minister Mitchell, whose own residence in St. George’s was flattened, led visiting Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning on a tour of the destruction late Thursday. Manning described the once-lush tourist destination as looking like “when dogs interfere with garbage bags and strew the contents all over the place.”
Aerial footage carried by the U.S.-based Weather Channel showed smashed roofs, window frames, furniture and fences cascading down the verdant hillsides.
At Manning’s urging, the 15-nation Caribbean Community sent 150 police and relief workers to Grenada to secure the airport, harbor and public facilities -- all still closed due to lack of electricity and communications. Machete-wielding looters have besieged St. George’s, the capital, smashing into banks and stores to cart off anything of value. Dozens of convicts escaped 17th century Richmond Hill Prison, destroyed by the worst storm to hit the region in decades.
The U.S. government released $50,000 to the stricken island in immediate aid and State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said more would be forthcoming. He said officials of the U.S. Embassy in Barbados, which covers Grenada, and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance were in Grenada to assess damage and assist victims, including students at U.S.-run St. George’s University.
Ivan’s swath has thus far spared the islands hit hardest by Hurricane Frances, which left at least 19 dead in the Caribbean and U.S. and an estimated $4 billion in damage.
Here in the Turks and Caicos, southeast of the Bahamas, cable television has yet to be restored to residents of Grand Turk island, and power lines were still down in many areas more than a week after Frances raged over the low-lying archipelago.
Cuba, slammed hard by hurricanes in each of the last two years, was set to take a direct hit from Ivan after suffering millions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Charley.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro appeared on state-run TV to urge his countrymen to brace themselves for the storm. “Whatever the hurricane does, we will all work together,” he vowed of the rebuilding they would have ahead.
Though Ivan’s U.S. landfall is not expected until early in the week and its route remains highly uncertain, Floridians braced wearily for the third major tempest in less than a month -- with 1.5 million people in the state still without power.
Staff writer Michelle Maltais in Los Angeles contributed to this report.