Hurricane Ivan (search) took aim Thursday at Jamaica and possibly Florida after killing 23 people in five countries and devastating Grenada, where police fired tear gas to stop a looting frenzy and frightened students armed themselves with knives and sticks.
Ivan, the deadliest hurricane to hit the Caribbean in a decade, pummeled Grenada (search), Barbados and other southern islands on Tuesday.
It weakened slightly and was downgraded from a Category 5 hurricane — the most powerful — to a Category 4 storm (search) packing 150 mph winds but was still expected to pound Jamaica, where officials urged a half million people to evacuate coastal and flood-prone areas.
Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson put security forces on alert against looting.
"All of us are continuing to hope and pray that by some miracle we may at the last minute be spared the worst," he said.
But the U.S. National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami said Ivan appeared headed for a direct hit on Jamaica Friday.
The dead included a 75-year-old Canadian woman who drowned in a canal swollen by flood waters in Barbados after going out in the storm to search for her cat, and four youngsters in the capital of the Dominican Republic who were swept away by a giant wave Thursday even though the storm was nearly 200 miles from land.
U.S. officials ordered people to evacuate the Florida Keys after forecasters said the storm — the fourth major hurricane of a busy Atlantic season — could hit the island chain by Sunday after crossing over Cuba. It was the third evacuation ordered there in a month, following Hurricane Charley and hard on the heels of Hurricane Frances.
Officials were also considering evacuating the 1,000 American citizens in Grenada, mostly university students who said they want to leave.
The storm left its worst damage in Grenada, where from the air it appeared that nearly every house had been ripped up. Hunks of twisted metal and splintered wood torn from homes were strewn across the hillsides and roads of this country of 100,000 people. Many trees were snapped off, and those left standing were stripped of their leaves. The stone walls of the capital's cathedral withstood the storm, but the entire roof had caved in.
In St. George's, Grenada's capital, police fired tear gas to try to stop a looting frenzy. Hundreds of people, including entire families with children, smashed hurricane shutters and shop windows to take televisions and shopping carts of food. An Associated Press reporter watched people walk away with bed frames and mattresses on their heads.
Sixty soldiers from Barbados, Antigua and St. Kitts arrived to help restore order, military officials in Barbados said.
Thursday afternoon, police set up barricades on roads leading into the capital and ordered all but emergency personnel off the streets. Hundreds of screaming and shoving people said they had to get to town to buy water and food. Police fired more tear gas.
But many managed to get through, saying they were desperate for water.
Among them was Dawn Brown, a 30-year-old housewife, who said she and her children ran from room to room in her home as Ivan ripped off sections of their roof. Eventually, the house was left roofless and the family hid beneath a mattress as its 130 mph winds howled around them.
"I stared death in its face. What could be more scary than that?" Brown said as she wandered the streets in search of water. The island has had no running water since Monday, when officials turned it off to save the plant from damage.
Hurricane Ivan ripped up nearly every utility pole, leaving residents without electricity and landline telephone service. Patchy cellular phone service was restored Thursday.
The first shipment of emergency relief arrived Thursday from the United States, which declared Grenada a disaster area to allow the immediate release of $50,000. There were enough blankets, plastic sheeting, dry food and water for 20,000 people, according to the U.S. Embassy in Barbados.
"I want to be home where I can feel safe," said Lesleigh Redavid, 22, a St. George's University student from Port Jefferson, N.Y. "It was really scary. Our room flooded and we were in pitch black with windows shattering around us. We have no candles, no flashlights or batteries."
On Wednesday night, students armed themselves with knives and sticks, fearing they would be attacked by looters.
In Jamaica, hundreds of tourists packed the airport of Montego Bay resort.
"Seeing other people panicked, I panicked as well," said Blanca Surino, 21, who was trying to persuade frazzled airport personnel to put her on a flight home to Los Angeles.
At the airport of Kingston, the capital, dozens of foreigners lined up for tickets.
"We were going to stick it out but the company I work for told everybody to evacuate," said Dennis Hennessey, 39, a building contractor from Essex Junction, Vt., who was helping build the new U.S. Embassy.
"They say Jamaica is a blessed place, and I hope it is," he said.
Workers began bolting plywood boards to windows, and most businesses closed early. Grocery stores and gas stations stayed open for long lines of people stocking up against the storm.
In the seaside town of Port Royal, just outside Kingston, fishermen pulled wooden skiffs ashore as menacing storm clouds rolled in. The town of squat concrete homes and zinc roofs was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Charley in 1951.
"It's Ivan the Terrible," said fisherman Peter Kission, 47. "We've been through this before. We can take another."
At 8 p.m. EDT, Ivan's eye was about 325 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica. Hurricane-force winds extended outwards 35 miles, down from 60 miles, and tropical storm-force winds extended 175 miles. Ivan was moving west-northwest at 13 mph.
Ivan's outer bands hit Barbados' south coast on Tuesday, damaging some 220 homes. It also tore roofs from dozens of homes in St. Lucia and in Tobago, where a woman died. Its heavy rains flooded parts of Venezuela's coast and left four Venezuelans dead.
Ivan brought drenching rain to Haiti's southwest peninsula Thursday, where residents worried it would bring disaster equal to May floods that killed 1,700 people along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border.
In Grenada, it killed 13 people and British sailors were treating about 100 injured at the hospital, where they restored generator power Thursday.
Three of 23 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were unaccounted for in northern Grenada, said Barbara Daly, chief spokeswoman for the federal agency. She said they were in "safe houses" when the hurricane struck. "We have no reason to believe they are harmed. ...It's just a question of intermittent and bad communications."
Two Americans rode out Ivan aboard their 53-foot sail boat in Grenada, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Eric Willis said.
The British patrol boat HMS Richmond and a supply ship rushed to Grenada on Wednesday and provided communications for Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, whose home was damaged. Sailors said they had cleared the damaged and flooded airport runway for emergency flights.
British sailors treating about 100 injured Grenadians at the hospital, where they restored generator power.
Mitchell said the "spice isle's" agriculture, including its famous nutmeg crop, was devastated.
He also said a stone prison was destroyed, allowing convicts to escape, including politicians jailed for 20 years for a 1983 left-wing coup that led the United States to invade. Nineteen Americans died in the fighting along with 45 Grenadians and 24 Cubans.