KINGSTON, Jamaica – Hurricane Ivan (search) slammed coastal areas of Jamaica with waves two-stories high and torrential rains, but the mighty storm shifted tack and may now spare the island the worst of its fury. The death toll elsewhere in the Caribbean rose to 37.
Ivan's winds approached the 155 mph marker that would make it a Category 5, the most powerful of storms, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami said.
But as it approached Jamaica, the storm wobbled slightly, and the worst of its winds may now miss Jamaica to the south, sparing the densely populated capital of 1 million people, Kingston. It could, however, return to course.
"We're going to have to wait and see," meteorologist Jennifer Pralgo said "It's only a wobble but a wobble enough that it ... may come back to course."
Reports of sporadic gunfire and looting in Kingston reached the emergency management agency, said spokeswoman Nadine Newsome, but police could not confirm that.
Howling winds and sheets of horizontal rain crashed around the eastern end of the blacked-out island after utility officials turned off the power to minimize damage to plants.
Prime Minister P.J. Patterson (search) declared a public emergency Friday afternoon and pleaded with the half million people considered in danger — about one in five islanders — to get to shelters. But most residents refused to leave for fear abandoned homes would be robbed.
"I'm not saying I'm not afraid for my life but we've got to stay here and protect our things," said Lorna Brown, 49, pointing to a stove, television, cooking utensils and large bed crowded into a one-room concrete home on the beach at the northwestern resort of Montego Bay.
Cuba declared a hurricane watch across the entire island Friday after its leader, Fidel Castro, went on national television warning residents to brace themselves. "Whatever the hurricane does, we will all work together" to rebuild, he said.
In South Florida, long lines reappeared at gas stations and shoppers swarmed home building stores and supermarkets. Forecasters said Ivan could tear through the Keys as early as Monday though there was still a chance the storm would instead move out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Farther south, in areas already struck by Ivan, authorities discovered more bodies along Venezuela's flooded coast and in devastated Grenada, where the U.S. State Department was arranging for the evacuations of all Americans who wish to leave the island.
"When dogs interfere with garbage bags and strew the contents all over the place — that's what Grenada looks like," Trinidadian leader Patrick Manning said after visiting the island.
In Jamaica, awed onlookers stood transfixed on the seaside Palisadoes Highway near Kingston's airport as 23-foot waves crashed to shore, thrusting rocks and dead tree branches more than 100 feet into the road.
"I've lived here all my life and I've never seen anything like this," said businessman Chester Pinnock, huddled under an umbrella in the drenching rain, which started here Friday morning.
"This is going to be disastrous, we could have hundreds dead. Hurricane Gilbert was a puppy compared to this," he said. Gilbert killed dozens of Jamaicans and devastated the island when it struck as a Category 3 storm in 1988.
Meteorologists warned that Ivan could caused "life-threatening" flash floods and mudslides.
"What we're experiencing now is only the beginning," Jamaica's prime minister said in an address to the nation. "Residents living near coastal areas must evacuate before it's too late. ... I cannot stress too strongly that Ivan is a dangerous hurricane."
But only 5,000 people moved into shelters islandwide, emergency management director Barbara Carby said. The government had asked 500,000 to flee.
In Montego Bay, where hundreds of tourists were stranded, the Barnett River overflowed its banks, putting some businesses on Bouge Street four feet under water and, farther inland, flooding roads and farmlands. Drenching rain washed away the main northern coastal road, the A1, a couple of miles outside Montego Bay.
The British Royal Navy frigate HMS Richmond, which rushed to Grenada's rescue Wednesday, was speeding to Jamaica along with a supply ship, Commander Mike MacCartain told the BBC.
Jamaicans can expect to feel the effects of the punishing hurricane through most of Saturday, said Lt. Dave Roberts, a Navy meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was projected to exit the island around Montego Bay, pass the Cayman Islands and cross over Cuba before taking aim at southern Florida.
The Cayman government posted a hurricane warning and urged residents of all three Caymanian islands to prepare "as for direct impact."
At 1 a.m. local time, Ivan was centered about 50 miles southwest of Kingston, where it had wobbled for a few hours. It was expected to resume a west-northwest motion near 10 mph.
East of Jamaica, in neighboring Haiti, flooding destroyed at least two houses and damaged a dozen more, but people expressed relief they were spared further catastrophe in a year that has already brought a bloody rebellion and deadly floods.
"First we had a political hurricane, then an economic hurricane, and now with the natural hurricane, we're just glad God saved us," said Jude Vante, 32, an unemployed mason in low-lying Les Cayes, on the southern peninsula.
Ivan became the fourth major hurricane of the Atlantic Season on Sunday. It damaged dozens of homes in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent Tuesday before making a direct hit on Grenada, which it left a wasteland of flattened houses, twisted metal and splintered wood. It damaged 90 percent of homes there, tossed sailboats to shore and set off looting among some of the 100,000 residents left without electricity, water and telephone service.
Manning, the Trinidadian leader, said Grenada's priorities are establishing security to end looting; recapturing prisoners; providing food, potable water, tents, blankets, and materials to rebuild; and restoring communications and electricity.
The American Red Cross disaster unit said Grenada's government has temporarily closed the country to relief shipments to get the security situation under control. The unit's director, Doug Allen, said the country needs relief by Saturday or Sunday before the situation becomes critical.
More than 100 Caribbean soldiers from five countries arrived Thursday to help restore order on the island of 100,000.
On Friday, Trinidadian troops armed with assault rifles patrolled the marina and shopping area around the Carenage, and police Superintendent Edvin Martin reported only scattered looting. As many as 75 convicts remained at large after about 150 of the prison's 325 inmates escaped when the storm damaged the prison.
Troops from Barbados and Trinidad guarded Grenada's airport, where dozens of American medical students waited for chartered flights home.
"Nothing is going to be functioning here for a long time," said Olivier de Raet, 37, a medical student from Potomac, Md.
In Washington, a State Department official said all Americans on Grenada who wish to leave the island will be flown to Trinidad starting Saturday morning aboard chartered U.S. aircraft.
There was no official estimate on the numbers of Americans there but one estimate said there were about 1,500, including U.S. medical students. The Peace Corps said all 23 of its volunteers on Grenada were accounted for and safe.
At St. George's University, student leader Salman Kahn, 25, of Chicago, said about 270 students had left on charter flights.
In the meantime, 31-year-old student Manisha Sharma of Boston was sleeping in a tent with her landlord and their kids.
"I'm living in a tent, it's been fun," she said. "I have 15 people with me, four kids."
Grenada's Police Commissioner Fitzroy Bedeau said efforts to determine a death toll were hindered by blocked roads, landslides and lack of telephone service. Hospital director Esther Henry Fleary said at least 26 people have died, the latest an 8 year-old boy who died Friday. She said the hospital had treated more than 500 injured people.
Ivan has also killed five people in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados, and four youngsters in the Dominican Republic.