GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands – Hurricane Ivan (search) pummeled the Cayman Islands (search) with fierce winds that ripped off roofs and floodwaters that swamped homes, then strengthened to an extremely dangerous Category 5 storm as it headed for western Cuba on Monday.
The hurricane, one of the strongest on record to hit the region, has killed at least 65 people across the Caribbean and threatens millions more people in its projected path. About 1.3 million Cubans were evacuated from their homes, most taking refuge in the sturdier homes of relatives, co-workers or neighbors.
"It's as bad as it can possibly get," Justin Uzzell, 35, said Sunday by telephone from his fifth-floor refuge in an office building on Grand Cayman island. "It's a horizontal blizzard," he said, "The air is just foam."
Ivan's sustained winds weakened to 150 mph as they neared the wealthy British territory, then intensified late Sunday as the hurricane headed for western Cuba with winds nearing 160 mph. Storms over 155 miles are Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the highest level and capable of catastrophic damage.
Officials had yet to assess damage, but Donnie Ebanks, deputy chairman of the Cayman Islands' National Hurricane Committee, estimated between one-fourth and half of the 15,000 homes in Grand Cayman suffered some damage.
Ivan was projected to pass near or over Cuba's western end by Monday afternoon or evening. The U.S. National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami said the storm surge could reach 25 feet with dangerous, battering waves.
The Hurricane Center said ham radio operators on Grand Cayman reported people standing on roofs because the sea in the low-lying island had surged up to 8 feet above normal tide levels.
The eye of the storm did not make a direct hit, passing just south of the island, said Rafael Mojica, a Hurricane Center meteorologist.
Still, emergency officials said residents from all parts of the island reported blown-off roofs and flooded homes as Ivan's shrieking winds and driving rain lashed Grand Cayman, the largest of three islands in the British territory of 45,000 people, a popular scuba diving destination and banking center.
"We know there is damage and it is severe," said Wes Emanuel of the Cayman Islands' Government Information Service.
The airport runway was flooded and windows shattered in the control tower, Ebanks said. The winds tore off leaves and uprooted trees as high as three stories.
There were no immediate reports of injuries in the Cayman Islands, but at least 15 were killed in Jamaica, and 39 in Grenada. Ivan also killed five people in Venezuela, one in Tobago, one in Barbados, and four children in the Dominican Republic.
After Cuba, Ivan was projected to move into the Gulf of Mexico Tuesday, nearing parts of Florida's west coast still recovering from Hurricane Charley, on a path toward northwestern Florida. It could also make landfall at Mississippi or Louisiana, said another meteorologist at the Hurricane Center, Jennifer Pralgo.
"Right now, we're looking anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Louisiana," Pralgo said. "We do feel that the southern portion of Florida will be in the clear on this."
Mexico issued a hurricane watch and tropical storm warning for the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula, and hundreds abandoned fishing settlements on the nearby island of Holbox. The resort city of Cancun opened shelters and closed beaches.
While projections had the storm bypassing the Florida Keys, officials kept an evacuation order in place for the island chain's 79,000 residents.
At 5 a.m. Monday, Ivan's eye was about 120 miles south-southeast of the western tip of Cuba. Hurricane-force winds extended 109 miles and tropical storm-force winds another 200 miles. Ivan was moving west-northwest near 9 mph and a turn northwest was expected early Monday.
The storm could dump up to one foot of rain that could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, the Hurricane Center said.
Officials told more than 100 evacuees in Houston, Texas, that two British navy ships were following Ivan and would bring aid to the Cayman Islands soon.
In Cuba, the threatened area included Havana, where traffic was light Sunday as most took shelter. The hurricane — being called "Ivan the Terrible" — is the most powerful storm to threaten Cuba since the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power.
In western Cuba, dozens of families in coastal La Coloma bundled up clothes, medicine, furniture and television sets before boarding buses to find shelter.
"I feel sad leaving my house on its own," said Ricardo Hernandez, 44, a fisherman. "But I have to protect myself and save the lives of my family."
Iberia Cruz, 50, who lost her home in a hurricane two years ago, moved her valuables to a nearby building. "We've lived through others, and that is why we are afraid," she said. "The ocean could pierce the town."
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, Mojica said.
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 was saved from a direct hit Saturday but still suffered heavy damage from Ivan.
Waves broke more than 30 feet high in the northwestern resort town of Negril on Sunday, crashing over a seawall and the rooftops of single-story hotel bungalows and restaurants, damaging many. Uprooted palm trees lay atop buildings and against walls, while armed security guards kept watch.
Jamaican police have killed two alleged looters, and four officers were wounded in shootouts with looters, officials said.
Ivan damaged dozens of homes in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent before making a direct hit Tuesday on Grenada, which was left a wasteland. It also destroyed nearly 100 houses and damaged hundreds more in Haiti.