Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Ivan leaves at least 12 dead in Grenada

Hurricane strengthens as it heads for Jamaica

ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada (AP) -- The most powerful hurricane to hit Grenada in a decade killed at least 12 people, damaged 90 percent its homes and destroyed a prison, leaving criminals on the loose, officials said Wednesday. American medical students were taking precautions against looters.

Hurricane Ivan, a Category 4 storm, was set to inflict direct hits on Jamaica, Cuba and, possibly, the southern United States, the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, said.

Before it slammed into Grenada on Tuesday evening, Ivan gave Barbados and St. Vincent a pummeling, damaging hundreds of homes and cutting utilities. Thousands of people there remained without electricity and water on Wednesday.

In Tobago, officials reported a 32-year-old pregnant woman died Tuesday when a 40-foot palm tree fell into her home, pinning her to her bed.

Details on the extent of the death and destruction in Grenada did not come through until Wednesday because the storm cut all communications with the island of 100,000 people, and radio transmissions on the island.

"We are terribly devastated ... It's beyond imagination," Prime Minister Keith Mitchell told his people and the world from aboard a British Royal Navy vessel that rushed to the rescue.

Mitchell, whose own home was flattened by Ivan, said 90 percent of homes on the island were damaged and he feared the death toll would rise.

"If you see the country today, it would be a surprise to anyone that we did not have more deaths than it appears at the moment," Grenada's Police Commissioner Roy Bedaau said in an interview with Voice of Barbados radio.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said virtually every major building in St. George's, Grenada's once-quaint capital of English Georgian and French provincial buildings, has suffered structural damage. The United Nations is sending a disaster team, Eckhard said in New York City.

"It looks like a landslide happened," said Sonya Lazarevic, 36, a first-year medical student from New York City at St. George's University, which overlooks the Grenadian capital. "There are all these colors coming down the mountainside -- sheets of metal, pieces of shacks, roofs came off in layers."

She said students there, mostly Americans, were arming themselves with knives, sticks and pepper spray for fear that looters in the city would come up the hill. "We don't feel safe," she said by telephone service that was sporadic.

When she wandered downtown after the hurricane passed, Lazarevic said she saw bands of men carrying machetes looting a hardware store. She said she saw a bank with glass facade intact during one pass that was totally smashed when she returned.

While the storm passed, students hid under mattresses or in bathrooms. "The pipes were whistling, the doors were vibrating, gusts were coming underneath the window," Lazarevic said. "It was absolutely terrifying."

Elsewhere, Ivan pulverized concrete homes into piles of rubble and tore away hundreds of the island's landmark red zinc roofs.

The storm strengthened even as it hit Grenada and got even stronger Wednesday, packing sustained winds of 140 mph (220 kph) with higher gusts as it headed across the Caribbean Sea and passed north of the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.

In Curacao, the government evacuated 300 residents.

High winds and heavy rains from Ivan flooded parts of Venezuela's north coast, but no injuries or major damage was reported from the South American nation.

Helicopter charter companies were busy Wednesday ferrying evacuated workers back to offshore oil drilling platforms there.

Ivan is expected to reach Jamaica by Friday morning or Saturday and then aim for Cuba, the hurricane center said.

"After Jamaica, it's probably going to hit somewhere in the U.S., unfortunately," meteorologist Jennifer Pralgo of the Hurricane Center said Wednesday. "We're hoping it's not Florida again, but it's taking a fairly similar track to Charley at the moment."

Hurricane Charley killed 27 people in southwest Florida last month and caused an estimated $6.8 billion in insured damage.

Ivan is an "extremely dangerous" storm, said Hugh Cobb of the Hurricane Center, adding this grim warning: "Whoever gets this, it's going to be bad."

Cobb said Ivan would be the first Category 4 storm to hit Caribbean islands since Hurricane Luis in 1995.

He said that if Ivan hit Jamaica, it could be more destructive than Hurricane Gilbert, which was only a Category 3 storm when it devastated the island in 1988.

In Grenada, emergency workers were having trouble reaching communities beyond roads blocked by uprooted utility poles.

Mitchell confirmed that an unknown number of criminals were on the loose after the country's crumbling and overcrowded 17th century prison, a hilltop fortress in colonial days, was "completely devastated."

Eight inmates went to a public shelter in Grand Anse, just south of the capital, relating they escaped when winds ripped off the roof and caved in stone walls at Richmond Hill Prison. Others at the shelter said the prisoners stayed about two hours and then left.

It was unclear if escapees included former Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard and 16 others jailed for life since their convictions for killings during a Marxist palace coup in 1983.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Ivan's eye was about 95 miles north-northeast of Bonaire. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 70 miles and tropical storm-force winds another 160 miles. Ivan was moving west-northwest at 17 mph.

Haiti posted a hurricane watch for its southwestern peninsula and the Dominican southwest coast was under tropical storm watch. A hurricane warning remained in effect for Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. Colombia's northeastern Guajira peninsula and Venezuela's north coast were under hurricane watch and tropical storm warning..

Ivan became the fourth major hurricane of the season Sunday, coming hard on the heels of Hurricane Frances, which killed two people in the Bahamas and 14 in Florida and Georgia.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.