'It was a wall of ocean water'
Though avoiding large-scale catastrophe, the Cayman Islands sustained heavy flooding as Ivan's eye wall raked Grand Cayman.
BY ALFONSO CHARDY AND KARL ROSS
Jenica Merren thought she wasn't going to live to be 22 when Hurricane Ivan struck Grand Cayman Island on the eve of her birthday.
Ivan's ocean surge came crashing through the windows and doors of the bank officer's home in the capital city of George Town on Sunday when part of Ivan's eye wall slammed through Grand Cayman -- the largest of the three Cayman Islands.
''It was a wall of ocean water coming our way,'' she recalled in a telephone interview from George Town on Tuesday. ``We fled to the attic and there was a hole in the roof and we thought we would need to climb out through there if the water kept rising. We thought we were going to drown.''
The water receded, sparing Merren and her relatives but underscoring what Ivan did to the Cayman Islands over the weekend -- widespread destruction but not a catastrophe for the 334-year-old British Caribbean possession.
Major infrastructure such as the island's airport, main hospital and roads seemed to have escaped significant damage, with several relief flights landing Tuesday and at least two flights leaving for Miami.
''It's numbing, just numbing,'' said Bernice Scott, clutching her daughter's stuffed animal at Miami International Airport after arriving from Grand Cayman late Tuesday. ``There's no other way to describe it.''
Scott, who endured the storm in an emergency shelter, said her home remained intact despite the high waters.
Scott, a teacher, said classes will likely be canceled for months because schools are being used as shelters.
Tatiana Hamaty, 87, said her son's home in George Town was ruined, despite painstaking efforts to protect it. The Miami resident was visiting when Ivan landed.
''It must have been a tidal wave because it came down and hit everything,'' Hamaty said. ``Water came in from every door. It knocked some of the shutters off. The roof caved in.''
Hamaty, who was carried to safety by her son and daughter-in-law, said she expects many islanders to seek refuge in Miami ``because they have nowhere else to go.''
Sheenah Dacosta, a native of the Caymans, caught a flight to MIA with her two children, ages 7 and 3. She said children on the island are in for harder times.
''The kids down there are all miserable because there's no water supply,'' Dacosta said. ``There are three main grocery stores, and two were demolished.''
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was in effect Tuesday as dazed residents took stock of the devastation.
Hilary Benn, British secretary of state for international development, said in London 95 percent of homes in Grand Cayman had roof damage.
Merren said it could take months ``to get power back, to get normalcy back.''
The biggest question was whether anybody was killed.
Merren said local radio reported Tuesday that no one had died. But Leanne Drago, a public relations representative for the islands' tourism department, said in an e-mail to The Herald Tuesday that ''dozens of people remain unaccounted for.'' Benn said there were unconfirmed reports of ``loss of life.''
As she drove around George Town on Tuesday, Merren reported seeing other cars on the road and police on patrol to maintain order after looting was reported on Monday.
In neighboring Cayman Brac, Rohendis Britton, head of airport operations there, said his island was not severely damaged.
British Royal Navy spokesman Paul Parrack said about 15 sailors from two warships who went ashore in Grand Cayman Tuesday reported that damage, though extensive, seemed less severe than the devastation that Ivan caused in Grenada last week, killing 39 people and damaging 90 percent of the tiny nation's homes.
The main hospital in George Town ''was up and running OK,'' Parrack said.
A DAY OF HORROR
The destruction in Grand Cayman began Sunday morning when Ivan's center passed just offshore, lashing George Town and neighboring towns with sustained winds of nearly 150 mph.
About 9:30 a.m., Merren -- taking shelter in her family's house -- saw heavy rain slowly trickling in through the windows and doors.
The trickles turned to gushing torrents, and the family fled to the attic when they saw a wall of water rushing into the house. By evening, she could see people on top of roofs and cars trying to stay above the four-to-five-foot-high water.
''It was like an ocean out there when there was once a road,'' she said.