BULL BAY, Jamaica - Hurricane Ivan strengthened to a rare Category 5 storm capable of catastrophic damage, leaving Jamaica and aiming for the Cayman Islands with winds reaching 165 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Saturday.
Ivan has killed 56 people across the Caribbean so far this week, including 34 in Grenada and 11 in Jamaica.
Millions more people are in its path, with Ivan projected to go between the Cayman Islands, make a direct hit on Cuba and then either move into the Gulf of Mexico or hit South Florida.
"If God doesn't help us, I think this is going to be extremely tragic," said Maria del Carmen Boza, a 65-year-old resident of Cojimar, a seaside community in Cuba once frequented by Ernest Hemingway. "All of Cuba is worried. This looks like it's going to be really dangerous."
President Fidel Castro sought to assuage such concerns.
"This country is prepared to face this hurricane," Castro said Saturday night on state television, saying his government had mobilized to save lives and property.
A Category 5 storm is the most powerful, packing winds of at least 155 mph and causing a storm surge of at least 18 feet.
At 8 p.m. EDT, the hurricane's winds were 165 mph and its well-defined eye was about 145 miles east-southeast of Grand Cayman, a popular offshore banking center where secrecy laws protect transactions. Hurricane-force winds extended 60 miles and tropical storm-force winds another 175 miles. The storm was moving west-northwest at about 9 mph and was expected to reach the Cayman Islands on Sunday.
The storm could dump up to 1 foot of rain, possibly causing flash floods and mud slides, the Hurricane Center said.
Abraham says Jamaica has woken up to quite a bit of damage after Hurricane Ivan swept through.
If Ivan hits land in the Caribbean at its current strength, it would be the first Category 5 storm to do so since Hurricane David devastated the Dominican Republic in 1979, said Rafael Mojica, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Center in Miami. Hurricane Mitch was a Category 5 storm in the Caribbean Sea in 1998, but it hit Central America.
Only three Category 5 storms are known to have hit the United States. The last was Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida in 1992, killing 43 people and causing more than $30 billion in damage.
Jamaica, an island of 2.6 million known for its beaches, reggae music and Blue Mountain coffee, was saved from a direct hit when the hurricane unexpectedly wobbled and lurched to the west. Jamaica was ravaged by winds just below 155 mph.
"Mercifully, we were spared a direct hit and whatever our religion, faith or persuasions may be, we must give thanks," Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson said in an address to the nation.
East of Kingston, the capital, dazed survivors stood in the rain and watched 25-foot waves crash onto beachfronts where a dozen houses used to stand at Harbour View. Associated Press reporters saw looters carrying boxes of groceries from a smashed storefront.
Five people drowned or were struck by trees that crashed into their homes, said Ronald Jackson of Jamaica's disaster relief agency. Patterson said 11 people had been killed, but he did not elaborate.
Ivan also has been blamed for the deaths of five people in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados, and four children in the Dominican Republic.
Forecasters warned that Ivan could strike Florida, where buildings in the Keys were mostly boarded up, deserted by evacuating residents and tourists. Ivan is approaching hard on the heels of hurricanes Charley and Frances.
In the wealthy Cayman Islands and in Cuba, people braced for the worst.
Hundreds of Caymanians fled aboard 10 charter flights scheduled for an evacuation. On Saturday, most of the 150 residents of Little Cayman evacuated to Grand Cayman, and about 755 people on Cayman Brac - more than half the population - and more than 600 people on the main Grand Cayman island moved into shelters, officials reported.
The British territory has about 45,000 residents.
Cuba has upgraded a hurricane watch to a warning for the threatened western part of the island.
National radio exhorted Cubans to "put into practice the solidarity that characterizes our nation" by inviting neighbors in vulnerable homes to seek shelter in more stable buildings. More than 480,000 people across the island of 11.2 million were evacuated by Saturday evening, Lt. Col. Domingo Carretero, head of Cuba's Civil Defense program, told the government's National Information Agency news service.
Jamaicans largely ignored government pleas for 500,000 people to flee flood-prone areas. Only 5,000 were in shelters when Ivan stalked the southern coast, coming to within 35 miles of Kingston.
With Ivan passing away from Jamaica's western edge, residents emerged to view the damage. At Caribbean Terraces, a middle-class seaside community at Jamaica's Harbour View, a foot of mud and sand caked the floors of homes that withstood the storm.
The street ran with floodwaters carrying splintered wood, cracked television sets, twisted air conditioning units and shredded clothing.
Looters took all the electrical appliances Owen Brown had stowed on an upper story of his five-bedroom home, but they left the storm-battered red sedan in his garage.
"They left me with absolutely nothing," said Brown, 50, adding he was "shell-shocked" when he returned home after working through the night as a radio broadcaster.
Next door, Joy Powell clutched a red shower curtain as if it were a security blanket as she stood in what used to be her living room - in knee-deep, muddy water floating with debris.
"The only thing I was able to save was one shower curtain," she said. "Everything else is completely gone."
Downtown, 20-foot high trees were uprooted, some flung onto the roofs of cars and twisted metal roof panels were strewn in the streets.
"I'd say we have been spared the worst but we're not out of the woods yet," Jackson said in the morning, when sheets of rain lashed the island and winds bent palm trees to a 45-degree angle.
Officials were trying to clear the road to reach the eastern parish of St. Thomas, believed to be hit the hardest, Jackson said.
Along the road to the airport - a muddy river filled with refrigerators, downed trees, traffic lights and utility poles - a dozen police officers kneeled behind their car with assault rifles at the ready. They said they were in the middle of a shootout, but it was not clear with whom.
Jamaica had not been hit by a major storm since Hurricane Gilbert struck in 1988, killing dozens of people and inflicting massive damages as a Category 3 storm.
In Montego Bay, disaster relief officials said it was too dangerous to assess damage Saturday morning, but dozens of people had reported roofs torn from their homes.
"Things are still flying in the air," disaster relief coordinator Faye Headley said.
Hundreds of stranded tourists were relieved at being relatively spared by Ivan.
"We are so lucky," said Petra Hauser, 35, of Aarau, Switzerland, who spent two days in a hotel lobby.
Ivan, the fourth major hurricane of the Atlantic season, damaged dozens of homes in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent on Tuesday before making a direct hit on Grenada, which was left a wasteland of flattened houses.
The U.S. State Department was arranging for the evacuations of all Americans from Grenada. The first plane left for Trinidad on Saturday carrying 49 people, said Consul General Bob Fretz of the U.S. Embassy in Barbados.