George Town, Cayman Islands Hurricane Ivan battered the Cayman Islands with ferocious 150-mph winds Sunday, flooding homes, ripping off roofs and toppling trees three stories tall as its powerful eye thundered past. It then strengthened to Category 5 as it moved today on course for Cuba.
Ivan has killed at least 65 people across the Caribbean and was expected to strike western Cuba, where residents have dubbed the storm "Ivan the Terrible," today. More than 1 million Cubans were evacuated from their homes.
Ivan's near 160 mph winds made it a Category 5 hurricane -- the strongest -- capable of causing catastrophic damage.
The storm, initially predicted to brush the Florida Keys, now appeared to be on a track to hit the Florida Panhandle. Mexico issued a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning for the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula.
The hurricane lost some strength before tearing into the wealthy Cayman Islands chain, a popular scuba diving destination and banking center. It is the fourth Atlantic hurricane of the season.
"It's as bad as it can possibly get," Justin Uzzell, 35, said by telephone from his fifth-floor refuge in Grand Cayman. "It's a horizontal blizzard. The air is just foam."
Donnie Ebanks, deputy chairman of the British territory's National Hurricane Committee, estimated that as many as half of Grand Cayman's 15,000 homes were damaged.
At 10 p.m. CDT, Ivan's eye was about 175 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba. Hurricane-force winds extended 90 miles and tropical storm-force winds out to 200 miles. Ivan was moving west-northwest near 9 mph and a turn northwest was expected today.
Ivan was projected to pass near or over Cuba's western end by this afternoon or evening. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm surge could reach 25 feet with dangerous, battering waves.
Caymans assess damage
The Cayman Islands were better prepared for the punishment than Grenada and Jamaica, which were slammed by Ivan in the past week -- though Jamaica was spared a direct hit Saturday. The Caymans have strict building codes and none of the shantytowns and tin shacks common elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The Hurricane Center said ham radio operators on Grand Cayman reported that people were standing on the roofs of homes because of storm surges up to 8 feet above normal tide levels.
While Ivan made a nearly direct hit on Grand Cayman, the eye of the storm did not make landfall, passing instead over water just south of the island, said Rafael Mojica, a Hurricane Center meteorologist.
Still, emergency officials said residents from all parts of the island were reporting blown-off roofs and flooded homes as Ivan's shrieking winds and driving rain approached Grand Cayman, the largest of three islands that comprise the British territory of 45,000 people.
The airport runway was flooded and trees were wrenched from their roots, including a giant Cayman mahogany next to the government headquarters in downtown George Town. Radio Cayman went off the air temporarily.
Though there were no immediate reports of injuries in the Caymans, the death toll elsewhere rose as hospital officials in Jamaica reported four more deaths, for a total of 15. Police in Grenada reported five more deaths for a total of 39.
Ivan also killed five people in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados, and four children in the Dominican Republic.
A tropical storm watch was posted Sunday morning for the portion of the 120-mile Florida Keys stretching from the Seven Mile Bridge west through Key West and into the Dry Tortugas. A mandatory evacuation was ordered for tourists and the island chain's 79,000 residents.
In Cuba, the threatened area includes densely populated Havana, where traffic was light Sunday morning as most took shelter. About 1.3 million people across the island of 11.2 million were evacuated, with most seeking refuge with relatives.
"This country is prepared to face this hurricane," President Fidel Castro said Saturday night. The storm is the most powerful to threaten this island nation since Castro came to power in 1959.