Stronger Ivan Eyes Cuba After Slamming Caymans

Hurricane Ivan, leaving a trail of battered islands and at least 68 dead in a rampage across the Caribbean, churned closer to Cuba Monday with 160-mph winds, on a path that could take it to U.S. shores.

HAVANA — Hurricane Ivan, leaving a trail of battered islands and at least 68 dead in a rampage across the Caribbean, churned closer to Cuba Monday with 160-mph winds, on a path that could take it to U.S. shores.

One of the strongest Atlantic storms on record, Ivan dealt a heavy blow to the tiny Cayman Islands, a low-lying British colony and offshore financial center of 45,000 people, where it ripped off roofs and sent sea water surging into houses and apartments well inland.

World oil prices climbed as companies operating along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast, home to about one-quarter of U.S. oil and gas output, braced for disruptions. A host of companies shut production or removed workers from offshore rigs.

Cuba, with a population of 11 million, evacuated 1.3 million people and hunkered down for a rare and deadly Category 5 hurricane that was near the western tip of the island. Forecasters warned of a possible 20-25-foot storm surge in Cuba, east of Ivan's center.

Ivan's death toll rose to 68 as Haiti reported three storm-related deaths and the Pan American Health Organization said 37 people had died in Grenada, up from 19. Nineteen were killed in Jamaica, four in Venezuela, four in the Dominican Republic, and one in Tobago.


On a more westerly path than predicted, Ivan's powerful core could pass through the Yucatan Channel between Cuba's western tip and Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It spared Cuba's sugar, nickel, citrus, and tourism industries, and its current track also put Havana, which accounts for 45 percent of the country's GDP, in less danger.

"Very Courteous" Hurricane

"It's going through the channel. That's very courteous," President Fidel Castro said on a tour of Pinar del Rio in western Cuba, as winds downed trees and traffic lights. "I'm more optimistic now and glad the country has been spared great expenses."

Pinar del Rio province, source of the tobacco for Cuban cigars, was hit by hurricanes Isidore and Lili in 2002, which caused $40 million in damage to the industry.

Gusts of hurricane-force winds began to pummel parts of the province by Monday afternoon, and officials reported the sea had surged 35 yards inland at the fishing village of Cortes. The strenghtening winds ripped off corrugated iron roofing in nearby La Coloma.

Mexico evacuated 10,000 tourists and residents from flood-prone areas near Cancùn as winds picked up and choppy seas grounded ferry boats. Almost all 2,500 residents of Isla Mujeres escaped to the mainland. Mexico's main oil exporting ports remained open despite cloudy conditions, the Transportation Ministry said.

On Grand Cayman, the largest of the three Cayman Islands, buildings were flooded, an airport runway was submerged, and roofs were torn off when Ivan roared past on Sunday, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

All three islands were without electricity, nearly every house on the island lost all or part of its roof, and cars and boats were swept away by flood waters, Cayman Net News, an online news service, reported.

"The glass doors at Cayman Net News thankfully resisted the worst of the flooding, even though at times it was like looking at an aquarium (complete with tadpoles) as the water rose some three feet outside," the service said.

While damage was extensive on Jamaica, the island of 2.7 million people appeared to have escaped the havoc wrought Tuesday on the tiny spice island of Grenada, where 90 percent of buildings were flattened or badly damaged.

Warnings for Florida's Gulf Coast

Ivan's track was expected to take it to the U.S. Gulf coast by Thursday, where it could inflict a third hurricane strike on Florida within a month or curve west toward New Orleans.

In southern Florida — hit by Hurricane Charley on Aug. 13 and Frances a week ago — homeowners breathed a sigh of relief. Authorities in the Florida Keys lifted an evacuation order, allowing residents to return to the 100-mile island chain.

But state officials warned that at least 1.7 million people living in fragile mobile homes or low-lying areas were at risk along Florida's Gulf Coast.

At 2 p.m. EDT, Ivan's center was about 70 miles south-southeast of the western tip of Cuba at latitude 20.9 north and longitude 84.7 west and moving northwest near 8 mph the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

On Saturday, Ivan's top sustained winds were reported at 165 mph, and the hurricane center declared it the sixth-strongest Atlantic storm on record. Ivan was downgraded to Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson storm scale as it hit the Caymans but strengthened again to a Category 5 Sunday night.

Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Source: Reuters