Thousands flee as Hurricane Ivan heads toward U.S. Gulf Coast |

Thousands flee as Hurricane Ivan heads toward U.S. Gulf Coast

Associated Press Writer
Hurricane Ivan is seen in this NOAA satellite image taken at 4:15 p.m. EDT, Monday, Sept. 13, 2004. (AP Photo/NOAA)

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba (AP) – After slamming western Cuba with 160 mph winds, Hurricane Ivan hardly slowed as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, threatening offshore oil rigs and setting off an exodus along the U.S. coast.

Five Florida counties urged or, in some cases, ordered residents to leave Tuesday as Ivan spun out of the Caribbean. One of the fiercest storms ever recorded in the region, Ivan cut a deadly swath through Grenada, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, killing at least 68 people.

In Mexico, hundreds of people abandoned fishing settlements on the Yucatan peninsula and the resort city of Cancun opened shelters and closed beaches. Cozumel island, a dive resort known for its lumbering sea turtles, shut its airport and halted cruise ship arrivals.

Forecasters said Ivan’s bands of winds and rain may begin coming ashore in the United States as early as Wednesday. It was not known, however, which location would take the storm’s hardest hit.

Ivan gave Cuba a taste of its monstrous power Monday evening, with the wall of the storm’s eye brushing over the island’s sparsely populated western tip – the heartland of Cuba’s famed cigar industry.

Tobacco fields were drenched, and sustained winds of 120 mph and gusts of 162 mph battered the provincial capital of Pinar del Rio, 100 miles west of Havana. But there were no immediate reports of casualties or significant damage.

“We are so relieved,” Miguel Rivero, a 42-year-old restaurant worker in Havana, said Tuesday. “If it had come through here it would have been a true disaster.”

Moraima Santos, a 60-year-old Havana housewife was terrified when early projections showed Ivan heading much closer to the capital of 2.2 million. On Tuesday, she said, “We are so happy that the monster has left.”

Ham radio operators reported trees and power lines down on the Isla de Juventud, or Isle of Youth, southwest of the main island, where 15-foot waves crashed into the coast.

The storm was sprawling enough to attack two islands at once earlier Monday. Its western fringe soaked Cuba as waves 20-foot tall slammed the sea wall at the port in George Town, Grand Cayman, some 250 miles away.

Ivan tore away part of a hotel on Cayman’s famed Seven Mile Beach, as seen in a fly-over by an AP-chartered aircraft over the island Monday.

Cuba’s tobacco crop was safe, according to top grower Alejandro Robaina. Planting season doesn’t begin until next month and remnants of January’s harvest are protected in curing houses.

“I think we are going to escape the worst of it,” Robaina told The Associated Press. Tobacco is the communist-run island’s third-largest export, producing an average of 150 million cigars worth about US$240 million a year. Sugar, the lead export, was spared since much of the cane is grown in the east.

Some 1.3 million of Cuba’s 11.3 million people were evacuated from the western region still recovering from Hurricane Charley. All national and international airports were closed until Wednesday.

Whatever the damage, Cuban President Fidel Castro said he would not accept any aid from the United States. “We won’t accept a penny from them,” the Cuban leader said Monday on state television.

“The hurricane before this they offered $50,000,” he said of a U.S. government offer after Charley hit. “Even if they offered all that was necessary – $100 million, $200 million, we would not accept.”

At 8 a.m., the storm was centered about 115 northwest of the western tip of Cuba and about 450 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It packed winds of 155 mph and was moving toward the north-northwest near 9 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 100 miles and tropical storm-force winds another 200 miles.

Oil prices shot up nearly $1.50 a barrel Monday as oil and natural gas producers evacuated rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell Oil said it was evacuating 750 workers.

Ivan has killed at least 15 people in Jamaica, 39 in Grenada, five in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados, four in the Dominican Republic and three in Haiti.

In Grand Cayman, the storm flung huge pleasure yachts up on land and toppled trees three stories high. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed.

“The island looks like a war zone,” said Diana Uzzell, a business manager on the island, the largest in the Caymans chain.

Grand Cayman looked as if the entire, low-lying island was under water at some point, AP reporters saw from a chartered plane that overflew George Town on Monday.

Many hotels were damaged, with torn-off roof tiles and roofs, the overflight showed. The second floor of the Divi Beach Club Colony Resort was torn away by the storm. Debris blanketed the Caymans.

Some houses were reduced to piles of splintered wood. A hangar at the airport had its roof blown off. Officials said the airport was open only for restricted flights.

From the plane, the only signs of activity on the ground were animals congregating on higher ground. All trees were denuded, their leaves shorn off by the storm, and some century-old trees three stories high were torn up by their roots.

Tourism director Pilar Bush said up to half of the 15,000 homes on Grand Cayman had suffered significant damage that made them inhabitable.

Bush, speaking in a telephone call from New York City, said the government was looking at hotels and school dormitories to house the thousands of displaced people. Soup kitchens were set up Monday.

The last Category 5 storm to make landfall in the Caribbean was Hurricane David, which killed more than 1,000 people and devastated the Dominican Republic in 1979.

Only three Category 5 storms are known to have hit the United States, the last Hurricane Andrew in 1992. It killed 43 people and causing more than $30 billion in damage in south Florida.

Associated Press reporters Anita Snow and Andrea Rodriguez in Cuba; Stevenson Jacobs in Jamaica, Gretchen Allen in Houston, Jay Ehrhart in the Cayman Islands and Peter Prengaman flying above the Cayman Islands contributed to this report.

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