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Hurricane Ivan devastates Grenada

Hurricane Ivan has brought widespread devastation to the Caribbean "spice isle" island of Grenada, damaging 90 per cent of homes and destroying a 17th century stone prison that left criminals on the loose as looting erupted.

Hurricane Ivan has brought widespread devastation to the Caribbean "spice isle" island of Grenada, damaging 90 per cent of homes and destroying a 17th century stone prison that left criminals on the loose as looting erupted.

The storm, which has already pummeled Barbados and is blamed for at least 12 deaths, is the most powerful hurricane to hit the Caribbean in 10 years. It is now on course for Jamaica, Cuba and the hurricane-weary southern United States.

The convicts who escaped from the destroyed prison included politicians jailed for 20 years for killings in a 1983 left-wing palace coup that led the US to invade.

American medical students fearful of marauders armed themselves with knives and sticks.

"We are terribly devastated ... It's beyond imagination," Prime Minister Keith Mitchell told his people and the world — from aboard a British Royal Navy vessel that rushed to the rescue.

Crews from HMS Richmond and the British supply ship Wave Ruler went to the island to help people stranded as Hurricane Ivan struck. A spokesman for the MoD said: "Officers on the ground have been helping providing relief and with the hospital."

Before it slammed into Grenada, Ivan gave Barbados and St. Vincent a pummeling, damaging hundreds of homes and cutting utilities.

In Tobago, officials reported a 32-year-old pregnant woman died when a 40-foot (12-metre) palm tree fell into her home, pinning her to her bed.

In Venezuela, a 32-year-old man died after battering waves engulfed a kiosk on the northern coast.

A 75-year-old Canadian woman was found drowned in a canal swollen by flood waters in Barbados. Neighbours said the Toronto native, who'd lived in Barbados for 30 years, had braved the storm to search for her cat.

Details on the extent of the death and destruction in Grenada did not emerge until Wednesday because the storm cut all communications with the country of 100,000 people, and halted radio transmissions on the island.

Mitchell confirmed that prison escapees included some of the 17 people jailed for life for killings during a 1983 Marxist coup, but he didn't know who they were or if they included former Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard.

Grenada is known as a major world producer of nutmeg and for the US invasion that followed the coup, when American officials had determined Grenada's airport was going to become a joint Cuban-Soviet base. Cuba said it was helping build the airport for civilian use. Nineteen Americans died in the fighting and a disputed number of others that the United States put at 45 Grenadians and 24 Cubans.

Mitchell, whose own home was flattened, said 90 per cent of houses on the island were damaged and he feared the death toll would rise. He said much of the country's agriculture had been destroyed, including the primary nutmeg crop.

"If you see the country today, it would be a surprise to anyone that we did not have more deaths than it appears at the moment," Mitchell said.

Within hours, Grenada's Police Commissioner Roy Bedaau raised the death toll to 12, in an interview with Voice of Barbados radio, but he provided no details.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said virtually every major building in St. George's has suffered structural damage. Grenada's once-quaint capital boasted English Georgian and French provincial buildings.

The United Nations is sending a disaster team, Eckhard said in New York. The Caribbean disaster response agency, based in Barbados, said its team arrived Wednesday afternoon along with US aid and Pan American Health Organization officials.

Bedaau said every Grenadian police station was damaged, hindering efforts to control looting. He said police were trying to set up a temporary post at St. George's fish market, and that Trinidad and other Caribbean countries were sending troops.

Elsewhere, Ivan pulverized concrete homes into piles of rubble and tore away hundreds of landmark red zinc roofs.

The storm strengthened early today to become a Category 5 on a scale of 5. It packed sustained winds of 160 mph (255 kph) with higher gusts as it passed north of the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.

Its howling winds and drenching rains flooded parts of Venezuela's north coast, but no injuries or major damage were reported from the South American nation.

Helicopter charter companies were busy Wednesday ferrying evacuated workers back to offshore oil drilling platforms there.

Ivan is expected to reach Jamaica by Friday and Cuba by the weekend, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

"After Jamaica, it's probably going to hit somewhere in the US, unfortunately," meteorologist Jennifer Pralgo said. "We're hoping it's not Florida again, but it's taking a fairly similar track to Charley at the moment."

Hurricane Charley killed 27 people in southwest Florida last month and caused an estimated US$6.8 billion in insured damage.

Cobb said not even a Category 4 storm has hit the Caribbean since Hurricane Luis in 1995.

He said that if Ivan hit Jamaica, it could be more destructive than Hurricane Gilbert, which was only Category 3 when it devastated the island in 1988.

Jamaica posted a hurricane watch Wednesday afternoon and ordered all schools closed and fishermen to pull their skiffs ashore and head for dry land. Haiti's southwest peninsula was on hurricane watch and the city of Les Cayes had already suffered hours of drenching downpours last night.

Les Cayes residents worried Ivan would bring disaster equal to May floods that killed 1,700 people and left 1,600 missing and presumed dead along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border.

The southwest coast of Haiti and Dominican Republic were under hurricane and tropical storm watch. Cayman Islands posted a hurricane watch. A hurricane warning remained in effect for Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. Colombia's northeastern Guajira peninsula and Venezuela's north coast were under hurricane watch and tropical storm warning.

At 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT), Ivan was centered about 85 miles northeast of Aruba. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 60 miles and tropical storm-force winds another 160 miles. Ivan was moving west-northwest at 17 mph.

Ivan became the fourth major hurricane of a busy Atlantic season on Sunday.