ST. GEORGE'S, Grenada (AP) - Hurricane Ivan, the latest in a series of punishing storms to hit the Caribbean this year, smashed into Grenada with ``hellacious winds'' that reduced concrete homes to rubble and sent the island's red zinc roofs fluttering through the air.
Ivan also damaged homes in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent. It was dubbed the most powerful storm to hit the Caribbean in 10 years, just days after Hurricane Frances rampaged through and went on to cause massive damage in Florida.
Ivan strengthened even as it passed over Grenada on Tuesday, then became a Category 4 storm as it headed across the Caribbean Sea on a projected route to bear down on Jamaica late Thursday.
``They (Grenadians) had about two hours of just hellacious winds,'' meteorologist Hugh Cobb of the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami told The Associated Press.
``This is a very dangerous hurricane now,'' he said. ``Whoever gets this, it's going to be bad.''
Howling winds raged through the hilly streets of the Grenada capital, St. George's. Ivan destroyed concrete homes, uprooted trees and utility poles, and knocked out telephone service and electricity. Transmission was halted from the Grenada Broadcast Network, whose building suffered major damage.
There were reports of at least one death in Grenada, but emergency officials could not be reached for confirmation. Their office building, the 19th century Great House at Mount Wheldale, sustained roof damage and its verandah was destroyed.
There also were unconfirmed reports that storm damage allowed prisoners to escape Grenada's crumbling and overcrowded 17th century prison, a zinc-roofed stone structure on a hilltop. Among its inmates are former Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard and 16 others convicted for killings during the coup.
At the island's St. George's University, the storm damaged roofs and blew out windows in buildings on the main campus, but there were no reports of injuries among students or staff, said chancellor Charles R. Modica. He added the buildings had been constructed within the past five years.
``The wood frame houses around the campus, however, appear to have been devastated and roads are impassable,'' Modica told The Associated Press by telephone.
ChevronTexaco said it evacuated nonessential staff from a natural gas well off Venezuela's Atlantic coast. Venezuela's government put the South American country's north coast on hurricane watch Tuesday night, and a hurricane warning was posted for the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.
Grenadian Prime Minister Keith Mitchell's home was flattened, Trinidadian leader Patrick Manning told reporters after a telephone conversation. Manning said Mitchell asked for help and promised to send $3.7 million in food and other aid.
More than 1,000 people rushed to shelters in Grenada, made up of several islands with about 100,000 residents. It is best known for a 1983 U.S. invasion following a left-wing palace coup.
Ivan's sustained winds were clocked at 120 mph as it raced through the Windward Islands. But it strengthened to 140 mph with higher gusts early Wednesday morning, and forecasts called for it to grow even more powerful.
It would be the first Category 4 storm to hit Caribbean islands since Hurricane Luis in 1990.
Cobb 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.
He said Ivan's heaviest rains, concentrated in its eastern sector, likely will sweep the southern peninsula of Haiti, the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. Heavy rains in May triggered floods that killed some 1,700 people and left 1,600 missing and presumed dead in Haiti and neighboring Dominican Republic.
At 5 a.m., Hurricane Ivan was centered about 235 miles east of Bonaire. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 70 miles and tropical storm-force winds another 160 miles.
Ivan became the fourth major hurricane of the season on Sunday, coming hard on the heels of Hurricane Frances, which killed at least two people in the Bahamas and 14 in Florida and Georgia.
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