Ivan Skirts Cuba, Yucatan; Heads for U.S. Gulf Coast

Powerful Hurricane Ivan continues to play cat and mouse with forecasters. As of yesterday morning the Category 5 storm was headed for Western Cuba, but just before hitting the island, Ivan moved westward. The main body of the storm passed through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba.

The country had been prepared for the worst. The BBC reported that “about 1.3 million Cubans were evacuated and thousands across the country sat out the storm in government shelters.” Although they were spared the worst of Ivan’s fury, early reports indicate that heavy rainfall, 25 foot (8 meter) high waves and strong winds caused substantial damage to the western tip of Cuba. No deaths have been reported.

Other areas of the Caribbean haven’t been as lucky. So far Ivan has been responsible for the deaths of more than 60 people throughout the region.

Reports from the battered Cayman Islands describe heavy damage. Governor Bruce Dinwiddy described the destruction on the BBC as “very, very severe and widespread”. Reuters reported people clambering on to rooftops as waist-high storm surges propelled by 160 mph (260 km/h) winds swept across the island.

Mexican authorities ordered the evacuation of some 12,000 residents and tourists from Isla Mujeres, an island about eight miles (13 km) from the resort of Cancun. A hurricane warning remains in effect for the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula from Tulum to Progreso, but the National Hurricane Center said it will “likely be discontinued later today.” Similar warnings remain in place for Western Cuba, but these too are likely to be discontinued as Ivan heads north.

If Cubans can be thankful for their good fortune, residents along the U.S. Gulf Coast have been alerted to prepare for the worst. Ivan’s long sojourn over the warm waters of the Caribbean, rather than over any sizeable landmass, has kept the storm’s strength at a high level.

An NHC bulletin issued at 5:00 a.m. EDT confirmed that “maximum sustained winds are near 160 mph (260 km/hr) with higher gusts. Ivan remains an extremely dangerous category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. Some slight weakening is anticipated during the next 24 hours. Hurricane force winds extend outward up to 100 miles (160 km) from the center and tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 200 miles (325 km).” According to a report from an Air Force hurricane hunter plane, Ivan’s minimum central pressure remains ominously low 924-Mb (27.29 inches).

While a tropical storm watch remains in effect for the Florida Keys, they seem to be out of Ivan’s path, unless it makes a sudden eastward shift. The NHC has posted a Hurricane Watch, however for the northern Gulf of Mexico coast from Morgan City Louisiana eastward to St. Marks Florida, including the greater New Orleans area.

As of the latest NHC bulletin Ivan’s center was near latitude 22.6 north-longitude 86.0 west or about 85 miles (135 km) Northwest of the western tip of Cuba and 575 miles (925 km) South-southeast of the northern Gulf of Mexico coast. It continues to move slowly, at about 9 mph (14.5 km/hr). The NHC said it expects a gradual turn to the north-northwest during the next 24 hours, but Ivan has proven to be very unpredictable.