COCKBURN TOWN, Turks and Caicos Islands — Hurricane Ivan crashed into Jamaica late Friday, inundating coastal areas with two-story-high breakers after government appeals went unheeded by most of the 500,000 residents urged to evacuate.
Only about 2,000 Jamaicans had taken cover in public shelters when the Category 4 hurricane, packing sustained winds of up to 155, mph raged into eastern Jamaica 10 hours later than forecast, slowed but not weakened on its path toward the southeastern United States. At least 37 deaths already had been blamed on Ivan since it revved up east of the Windward Islands a week ago.
At least 26 of the deaths occurred on Grenada, where the full extent of Ivan's devastating rage as it passed through Tuesday and Wednesday was becoming apparent only Friday because of the loss of power and communications. Friday broadcasts on Caribbean radio stations quoted Prime Minister Keith Mitchell as estimating that 85% of the main island's housing was a shambles and that the nutmeg plantations that produce the country's main cash crop had been destroyed.
In Jamaica, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson declared a state of emergency in a national address Friday and urged those who could get to a shelter to do so.
"What we're experiencing now is only the beginning," Patterson said as waves rose more than 20 feet over a low-lying causeway leading to the closed airport near Kingston, the capital. "I cannot stress too strongly that Ivan is a dangerous hurricane."
As winds intensified and word spread of the storm's devastation elsewhere, many Jamaicans professed determination to tough it out in their homes.
"The wind is strengthening and we're getting a lot of rain, but so far so good," said 76-year-old Harry Hawkins, a retired telecom worker hunkered down in his home five miles outside Kingston. He said he was putting his fate "in God's hands" and going to sleep despite the storm's howling around him.
Much as Hurricane Frances bogged down last week, adding an agonizing wait to the fear and disruption of millions of lives throughout the Caribbean, Ivan's progress toward Jamaica slowed as soon as airports, public services and businesses closed, leaving Jamaicans stranded, holed up in the dark and too nervous to sleep.
"Slowing down is not good. It could mean that we could have tropical storm-force winds for an extended period," Bryan Bambury of Jamaica's Meteorological Service told reporters, noting that flooding was already occurring in low-lying areas of the capital hours before the full brunt of Ivan made landfall in this country of 2.7 million.
Ivan, the third major storm of the barely half-over hurricane season, was set today to strike the Cayman Islands, home to 43,000, and Cuba, whose 11.2 million residents felt the fury of Hurricane Charley a month ago.
Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, was also being hit by tropical storm-force winds that sent thousands fleeing their shantytowns to safer buildings such as churches and schools. Thunderstorms and feeder bands -- the storms thrown off for hundreds of miles from the spiraling hurricane -- imperiled boaters as far away as the Turks and Caicos Islands to the north and the Caribbean shores of South American nations.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center described Ivan as "an extremely dangerous storm" and warned it could intensify after crossing Jamaica, recovering the Category 5 status -- the most severe hurricane level -- it held when it plowed into Grenada.
"I'm not going nowhere. It's already hit, but I'm staying in the town so they can't take my things," said Fiona Boorasingh, an unemployed 30-year-old living in a two-room cinderblock home in Nain, near Mandeville in south-central Jamaica. "Some people moved to shelters but not so many. Some people think they'll be robbed if they go away."
Looting raged throughout Jamaica after Gilbert, the last major hurricane to hit the island. That experience dissuaded many Jamaicans from seeking shelter this time. Others said they simply preferred to take their chances in the comfort of their homes with loved ones.
Curiosity drove even those with experience to disregard authorities' advice to relocate.
"The little boy inside of me, you see, is quietly wanting to see this, this Ivan the Terrible," said Maurice Thomson, 48, a businessman from the Kingston suburb of Barbican who decided to ride out the storm at home. "The man in me is saying, 'Look here, this is not worth it. This is devastation.' "
Jamaicans insisted they were not cavalier about their safety.
"It's not that we've underestimated it, it's just that we're more laid back than the Americans," said Yolanda Drakapoulos, a public relations worker in Kingston, referring to the panic-buying and U.S. news coverage of hurricane season. "We're in the middle of it now. It's really blowing up good stuff out there."
Kingston's airport, at the end of a causeway containing the town of Port Royal, was closed and evacuated late Thursday.