By Horace Helps
KINGSTON, Jamaica (Reuters) - Powerful Hurricane Ivan roared into Jamaica with huge waves, drenching rains and deadly winds on Friday and sporadic shooting erupted in the near-deserted streets of the capital as looters went on the prowl.
Large trees and poles crashed down in Kingston, some hitting houses. Ravines running through the city quickly overflowed and flooded streets.
Large waves pounded the coast around St. Thomas in the southeast of the island and a storm surge tore away at least two houses, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency said. Elsewhere, the surge washed away roads.
"It's extremely windy. The whole island is without electricity," said Joseph Robinson, 45, from the British Caribbean territory of Turks and Caicos, as he took shelter in the lobby of a Kingston hotel. "It's going beyond manageable."
Ivan, which has already killed 27 people as it rampaged across the Caribbean, strengthened when it reached Jamaica with winds of 155 mph, just short of qualifying as a rare, top-level Category 5 hurricane for the second time since it formed.
If it continues on its present path it could be the third big storm in a month to slam into Florida.
In the Cayman Islands, a British territory west of Jamaica, authorities told coastal dwellers to flee battering waves and an 8-foot storm surge.
In the Florida Keys, long lines of tourists and residents streamed out of the 100-mile island chain as Floridians, already bruised by Hurricanes Charley and Frances in the past four weeks, wearily prepared for a possible third strike in an unusually busy Atlantic storm season.
JAMAICANS BRACE FOR THE WORST
In the immediate path of Ivan, Jamaica's 2.7 million people braced for the worst.
"It is clear that the severity of this hurricane will have extremely serious effects, as predicted," said Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson as he declared a state of emergency.
Half a million Jamaicans, over one-sixth of the population were urged to evacuate low-lying areas as Ivan approached. But many held out, vowing to protect their homes from looters.
As fierce winds lashed Kingston, robbers held up emergency workers at gunpoint. A doctor was shot and taken to hospital.
By 11 p.m. EDT, Ivan's center was about 35 miles south of Kingston at latitude 17.5 north and longitude 76.9 west, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
It was moving west-northwest at 10 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended for 60 miles from the center.
Ivan has killed at least 27 people, most of them on the devastated spice island of Grenada, which officials said remained without power or water and under a dusk-to-dawn curfew after widespread looting.
Security forces from Grenada and other Caribbean countries secured buildings in the capital, St. George's, while residents on foot or in cars with smashed windshields searched for scarce water, food and gasoline.
Authorities said 90 percent of Grenada's homes were damaged when the hurricane hit on Tuesday and issued an urgent appeal for tents, tarpaulins, cots, blankets and building supplies to shelter 60,000 of the volcanic island's 90,000 people.
Tour groups joined forces to evacuate tourists to Barbados while the State Department in Washington said it would evacuate U.S. citizens Saturday.
In addition to 17 deaths in Grenada and one in Jamaica, four people died in Venezuela, four in the Dominican Republic and one in Tobago.
In the Cayman Islands, a major offshore financial center, most businesses, including banks and schools were closed. Some apartment complexes ordered residents to evacuate.
TIME TO PRAY
The hurricane center's long-range forecast, which has a large margin of error, put Ivan in Cuba by Sunday, and near Key West, Florida, on Monday afternoon.
The order for 80,000 residents to leave the Florida Keys was the third big evacuation in Florida in a month.
"This is really the time to prepare and not to panic," said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "It is also a time for people of faith to pray, for the souls we lost in these storms -- and there is a growing number of those -- for our state's recovery and for the strength to face what lies ahead."
Charley killed more than 20 people and caused insured damage of $7.4 billion after hitting southwest Florida on Aug 13. Frances, a less powerful but bigger storm, killed 19 people and caused damages of $2 billion to $4 billion.
More than 650,000 homes and businesses in Florida, or about 1.3 million people, remained without power on Friday. (Additional reporting by Daniel Aguilar in Kingston, Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo, Robert Edison Sandiford in Bridgetown, Barbados, Michael Peltier in Tallahassee, Florida, Linda Hutchinson-Jafar in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and Alan Markoff in George Town, Cayman Islands)