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Florida Awaits Another Blow

Ivan is on a path that could make it the state's 3rd hurricane in two months. Evacuation of the Keys is ordered as storm heads for Jamaica.

September 10, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — As the fiercest Caribbean hurricane in a decade churned straight toward Jamaica on Thursday, authorities in storm-weary Florida ordered the complete evacuation of the Keys, where Ivan could strike next week.

Spinning off winds of 150 mph, Ivan weakened to a Category 4 storm after 12 hours as a Category 5 -- the maximum hurricane intensity rating. On its path across the Caribbean, the storm has killed at least 20 people in Grenada, Barbados, Tobago, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, it damaged 90% of the homes on Grenada, breaking open a 17th century stone prison, letting inmates run free.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday that his state had no choice but to ready itself for another violent buffeting. Widespread relief and rebuilding efforts were ongoing in Florida communities already ravaged during the last month by Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

"Maybe someone creative in Hollywood could come up with something like this [scenario], but this is past my imagination," Bush said.

Chris Hennon, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said that even after Thursday's slight weakening, Ivan had the enormous power of Andrew -- the most destructive hurricane to strike the United States.

In 1992, Andrew killed 23 people and caused $26.5 billion in damage as it blasted across South Florida, continued into the Gulf of Mexico and hit the Louisiana coast.

"Right now, Ivan is comparable," Hennon said.

Grenada's prime minister, Keith Mitchell -- whose own home was flattened when Ivan's howling winds and lashing rains raked the island Tuesday -- said the death toll of 13 was expected to rise. Much of the country's agriculture industry, including the primary nutmeg crop, had been destroyed. Mitchell said the devastation suffered by his small nation of 100,000 was "beyond imagination."

Widespread looting was reported Thursday in St. George's, Grenada's capital, as thieves grabbed goods as diverse as TV sets and butter. Foreign students, including Americans, were arming themselves with knives and pepper spray for protection, local news reports said, and troops were being dispatched from other Caribbean islands to help restore order. The U.S. government declared Grenada a disaster area, allowing the immediate release of $50,000 in emergency aid, with more promised soon.

Moving west-northwest at about 13 mph, Ivan was forecast to reach Jamaica today, Cuba on the weekend and the Florida Keys or nearby waters late Sunday or early Monday, National Hurricane Center spokesman Frank Lepore said. At 11 p.m. EDT Thursday, a reconnaissance plane reported the storm's center 290 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, or about 800 miles southeast of Miami.

In Jamaica, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson was urging his people to pray. "We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario," he said. When Ivan makes landfall on Jamaica, it is expected to pack 155 mph winds. Authorities on the island declared a hurricane warning Thursday, closed schools and ordered fishermen to return to shore.

In the Dominican Republic, huge waves washed over seaside Malecon Drive in the capital of Santo Domingo on Thursday, and four children drowned after they were swept from a beach into the sea. In Tobago, officials said a pregnant 32-year-old woman died when a palm tree fell into her home, pinning her to her bed. In Barbados, a Canadian woman drowned in a flood-swollen canal, apparently when she went to look for her cat. On Venezuela's north coast, a 32-year-old man died after a kiosk was engulfed by surf.

If current forecasts are correct, Ivan could become the third hurricane to plow into Florida in the last month. On Aug. 13, Charley came ashore on the southwest coast, killing 27 people and causing an estimated $6.8 billion in damage. Last weekend, Frances made landfall on the Atlantic seaboard and swept across the state into the Florida Panhandle, causing up to $4 billion in insured damage and at least 15 deaths.

Winds from Ivan measuring 39 to 73 mph -- tropical storm strength -- were expected to begin buffeting the Keys, the archipelago south of the Florida peninsula, Sunday afternoon. Damage there, especially from wind-whipped seas, could be catastrophic: The highest point in Key West is 6 feet above sea level.

"Because the Keys are over 140 miles long, with one mostly two-lane highway, it's imperative we begin our evacuation early and do it in an orderly manner," Greg Artman, a Monroe County emergency operations spokesman, said Thursday.

Tourists, other nonresidents and people with RVs, boats and trailers were ordered to leave the island chain immediately -- the third evacuation of visitors in a month. Starting at 6 p.m. EDT, residents of mobile homes were supposed to depart. As of 6 a.m. today, a phased evacuation of the remainder of Keys residents was to begin, probably starting with Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States, then working north to Key Largo and the remainder of the Upper Keys, Artman said.

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