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Jamaica prepares for Ivan

Observer Reporter

Thursday, September 09, 2004    

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BARRING an 11th hour shift in its direction, Hurricane Ivan, having already wreaked havoc in the southern Caribbean, was on course to hit Jamaica with a thumping blow by tomorrow and forecasters warned that its impact could be more ferocious than Gilbert 16 years ago.

Gilbert left several people dead and over US$600 million in damage when it struck Jamaica on September 12, 1988.

"In terms of the strength it (Ivan) is more intense than Gilbert when it hit us," said Evan Thompson, head of the weather branch of the Meteorological Service of Jamaica.

"Gilbert was a category three when it hit us, then became a category four and then a category five when it left us," Thompson said. "This system is already a category four and could develop into a category five before it hits us."

At 4:00 pm yesterday, Ivan was 650 miles east south-east of Jamaica's westerly tip, travelling in a west north-westerly direction at a healthy clip of 17 1/2 miles an hour - speed that would have it bearing onto Jamaica by early tomorrow.

"By Friday morning, the centre is predicted to be off Jamaica's south coast, preparing to make its way across the island," the Meteorological Office said last night.

But its impact, if the storm stays the course, will be felt long before then, for while its hurricane force winds - over 74 miles an hour - extends for 69 miles from its centre, its tropical storm force winds reached up to 162 miles.

The storm packed maximum sustained winds of nearly 138 miles an hour. But forecasters warned that it could get worse as the storm, which passed just north of the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao yesterday, headed across the warm waters of the central Caribbean.

"This is where a further development of the system is most likely," the Met Office said.

With the storm keeping Jamaica in its focus, Prime Minister P J Patterson went on television last night to urge people to take all necessary precautions and to follow the instructions of disaster management and relief officials.

"We can avert unnecessary tragedy and minimise damage if we act sensibly," Patterson said.

Earlier in the day, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) put its response teams on full alert and stockpiled relief supplies in key locations across the island.

"We are speaking about all the agencies that have a role to play in terms of sheltering, rehabilitation and rescuing efforts," said the agency's information and training officer, Nadine Newsome.

This team includes the Jamaica Defence Force, the Red Cross, National Works Agency, the Salvation Army and the Jamaica Fire Brigade.

The education ministry yesterday announced the suspension of classes from today and Patterson said that several of these, as well as some churches, had been designated hurricane shelters in the event of need.

All public functions have been cancelled.

But up to late afternoon yesterday, even as the seriousness of the hurricane threat became apparent, there was not the rush on supermarkets and pharmacies for emergency supplies that was apparent when Hurricane Charley skirted the island last month.

"They (shoppers) seem storm-weary," says Maria Leyow, of Super Valu Supermarket in the Kingston suburb of Meadowbrook/Havendale.

Some customers had phoned to say that they would put off their shopping until today. "So tomorrow (today) should be a busy shopping day," she said.

At Azan's in Kingston's popular Constant Spring Road shopping district, the warehouse purchasing manager, Elaine Jackson, said there was a brisk movement in some items.

"Batteries and lamps are the fastest things going, but today's sale is still low compared to previous storm shopping," she said. "Perhaps they still have their stocks from the last storm watch."

Flights continued in and out of Jamaica yesterday, although the national carrier cancelled some flights to the southern Caribbean and re-routed others and prepared to man its flight operations from Miami, in the event the hurricane hits the island.

"We intend to keep functioning airline operations throughout the day so we would have 24-hour reservation operations in Miami (as well as) a second operating centre coordinating operating activities in Miami," said the airline's chief operating officer, David Ban-Miller.

Depending on the decision about flight cancellations to be made today, all aircraft would be placed outside of Jamaica.

"We would have six (aircraft) in Florida, we expect one in Los Angeles, one in London and the balance of the fleet in other cities in the United States," he said. "We have not made any final decisions yet but we have a plan to do so (today) if the (hurricane) projection is the same as it is."

Announcements about airport closures would be made today, officials said.

"We are just making internal preparations, but plans are in place, preparations are being made but won't be made known (publicly) until (today)," said a spokesman at the Airports Authority of Jamaica.

The light and power company, Jamaica Public Service (JPS), and the water company, the government-owned National Water Commission (NWC), said they too had prepared for the likelihood of Jamaica being hit by the storm.

JPS said it was activating its Emergency Operation Centres across the island. "These centres will be manned by technical staff who will respond to emergencies and accelerate restoration efforts in each parish, if necessary," the company said.

It reminded customers to take the necessary precautions such as trimming trees that are close to power lines.

Among the action being taken by the NWC was to relocate water pumps and other equipment in low-lying areas and shutting down some facilities "deemed to be critical or at risk".

This could lead to water lock-offs in some areas if the hurricane struck, so the NWC encouraged consumers to store water for use.

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