One million Cubans flee as Ivan threatens catastrophic damage

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Hurricane Ivan continued to torment the Caribbean yesterday as it swung past the western edge of Cuba, triggering the evacuation of more than a million coastal residents, who were ordered to move to higher ground.

Hurricane Ivan continued to torment the Caribbean yesterday as it swung past the western edge of Cuba, triggering the evacuation of more than a million coastal residents ordered to move to higher ground.

The storm had regained its Category 5 status, with sustained winds of more than 155mph at its core. As many as 67 people were already feared dead across the region. Jamaica, which just avoided a direct hit at the weekend but still suffered widespread damage, raised its death toll to 17.

On the British territory of the Cayman Islands, officials were still trying to gather a full picture of the devastation left behind by Ivan on Sunday. There were reports of extensive damage, with trees uprooted, power lines down and as many as one in four of its buildings affected. There were no confirmed reports of any deaths.

"We know there is damage and it is severe," confirmed Wes Emanuel of the Government's Information Service. According to Caymannetnews. com, a local news website, as much as 20ft of water surged across Grand Cayman during the worst of the hurricane, inundating homes and businesses.

"It's as bad as it can possibly get," Justin Uzzell, 35, a Cayman resident told reporters over the telephone from his fifth-floor refuge in an office building on Grand Cayman island during the height of the storm. "It's a horizontal blizzard."

Two Royal Navy ships, the HMS Richmond and the supply ship Wave Ruler had arrived in the waters of the Cayman Islands last night to assist with rescue and clean-up operations. The ships had sailed from Grenada where they were on hand as Ivan struck that island last Tuesday.

Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba, was reported to be visiting an emergency response facility in the far west of his country as the storm approached. The eye of Ivan was expected to track just west of Cuba and to the east of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Beaches were closed in the resort of Cancun. The last Category 5 hurricane to hit land in the Caribbean was Hurricane David in 1979, whichkilled more than a thousand people in the Dominican Republic.

The advance of Ivan continues to strain the nerves of millions of Americans. Earlier predictions that it could deal fresh damage to Florida were revised after the storm took a slight more westerly path.

Latest forecasts put Ivan making landfall somewhere in the United States on Thursday, probably in the Florida panhandle or possibly further west, which would make coastal communities of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana its target. Only three Category 5 storms have ever been known to hit the United States. The last, Hurricane Andrew, ripped a wide gash in south Florida in 1992 causing billions of dollars in damage and killing 43 people.

"Right now, we're looking anywhere from the Florida panhandle to Louisiana," confirmed Jennifer Pralgo, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami. "We do feel that the southern portion of Florida will be in the clear on this."

This brought relief elsewhere in the state, especially to the Florida Keys, which had been under a blanket evacuation order before yesterday. Officials said they would reopen the causeway that links the island chain to the mainland, allowing about 79,000 displaced residents to return to their homes.

So far the worst of the storm has been visited on Grenada, which lost 39 people and most of its buildings when Ivan struck one week ago. The storm has also killed four children in the Dominican Republic, one person in Barbados, five in Venezuela and one in Tobago.

Frantic preparations to protect property and life were under way all along the Florida panhandle and points west as residents emptied DIY centres of plywood, torches and other supplies. Coastal evacuations in the region and in neighbouring Alabama could come today.

"I think it's going to take the trailer," said Virginia Gros, who lives in a mobile home near Fowl River, Alabama. "I'm packing up as much as I can."

Any storm with winds as strong as Ivan's risks whipping up storm surge waves of 18 feet or more. This forces authorities to move coastal residents between five and 10 miles inland to avoid the risk of drowning.

A state of emergency remained in effect in Florida which has barely finished recovering from hurricanes Charley and Francis which struck in mid-August and earlier this month. The Sunshine state has not been hit three times in one season in 40 years.