Features

Long, long way from 'normal'

Hurricane Ivan | Storm-weary U.S. coastline takes another heavy hit, just as cleanup and relief efforts begin among devastated Caribbean islands. With tens of thousands homeless and crucial infrastructure in shambles, faith-based groups are trying to offer

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

By the time Hurricane Ivan made U.S. landfall along the Gulf coast, its victims in Grenada already had spent days drinking dirty water and sleeping anywhere they could-under decks, concrete bridges, and in crawl spaces of the few cinderblock homes left standing.

The first Category 4 hurricane to hit the Caribbean since 1995 slammed Jamaica and Grenada before hitting western Cuba on Sept. 13. It triggered mudslides and ripped the roofs from homes, farms, and fisheries. Ivan killed 21 people in southern Jamaica as 160-mph winds yanked up trees and pulverized homes before churning east to Grenada. Though the tiny island nation lies at the edge of the hurricane belt, Ivan lashed it without mercy, smothering it in a two-hour blanket of violence that killed 39 people. Those who survived face utter ruin: The hurricane crushed an estimated nine of every 10 structures on Grenada, including homes, businesses, and government buildings. Where houses once stood, concrete porch steps now lead nowhere. The freakish storm tossed Grenada's harbors into a bizarre boat salad, an impossible tangle of lines, masts, and hulls.

"I have no food. I have no clothes. My entire house was destroyed. I have nothing," said Shaheed Bilal, 42, a wheelchair-bound man. "I am now looking to steal something in the grocery."

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Artist Fitzgerald Thomas lost all his paintings after Ivan ripped the roof from his home. "I am concerned about my children because I have no food in the house. We have been waiting for [aid workers] to bring supplies to us, but until now we have not seen anyone."

Grenada before Ivan was home to 100,000 and best known to Americans as the site of a 1983 U.S. invasion that restored the nation's independence from a Marxist coup. Economically, the tropical island majored on tourism and nutmeg, its pungent scent floating out on cool trade winds to ships miles away at sea.

That's all over for now: Ivan turned the nutmeg trees into matchsticks and there is little left to tour.

"Grenada's economy is in tatters," said Gerry Seale, president of the Evangelical Council of the Caribbean. An estimated 81,000 people-more than 80 percent of the population-now sleep under the stars. There is no food, no shelter, no drinking water, no medicine, no electricity, and no telephone service. And there is no state-of-the-art federal emergency disaster apparatus to roll in as it will for Grenada's neighbors to the north who also must live with Ivan's destruction.

Along the U.S. Gulf Coast, mayors and governors last week urged citizens to flee, as the Air Force Reserve's "Hurricane Hunters" flew straight into the eye of the storm. After Ivan chased the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron from its base in Biloxi, Miss., the squadron evacuated to Florida's Homestead Air Reserve Base and resumed its white-knuckle reconnaissance flights into the storm's raging interior.

The 53rd's WC-130 airplanes flew round-the-clock missions into the hurricane to provide National Hurricane Center forecasters with continuous updates on the path and intensity of the storm. Squadron weather officer Lt. Col. Doug Lipscombe flew into Ivan on Sept. 13 when it was gusting up to 200 mph just off Cuba. "That is a storm you pray no one will ever have to endure on the ground," he said.

But millions did endure Ivan and some did not survive. By Sept. 16, the storm had claimed more than 70 lives. After its deadly rampage through the Caribbean, the eye of Ivan howled ashore on the U.S. Gulf Coast Sept. 16 as residents and tourists who did not evacuate huddled in shelters and boarded-up homes.

By the time Ivan made U.S. landfall, the storm had weakened slightly to a Category 3, but still packed winds of up to 130 mph. It promised 15 inches of rain as the storm moved inland and by week's end left 2 million customers in four states without power.

Devastating as it was in the United States, Ivan's wrath was most severe in the Caribbean.

"The situation here is absolutely desperate," said Carol Phillips, director in Barbados of Operation Mobilization. Ivan flattened every medical clinic and pharmacy on the island, she said. The main hospital is operating at half-capacity, but running critically low on supplies.

Just as Ivan reached Alabama, international relief had begun pouring in to Caribbean victims. The European Commission pledged $1.8 million in aid. Canada is sending $500,000. And as of Sept. 10, the U.S. government had contributed more than $300,000 in air transport, aerial assessment, and emergency relief supplies. In Jamaica, Starcom, a network of four radio stations including a gospel station, held a "radiothon" and raised $1 million to aid the Grenadines.

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