Hurricane Mitch Takes Swipe At Caribbean -- Jamaica, Caymans Hit By Rain, Flooding

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands - Hurricane Mitch, the most powerful storm of the season, lashed Jamaica with heavy rain and flooded parts of the Cayman Islands with huge sea swells as it slowly plowed through the western Caribbean today.

The full force of Mitch's 155-mph winds did not strike Jamaica and the Caymans, but rain squalls from the huge storm flooded streets in the Jamaican capital, Kingston.

Under a tropical-storm warning, hotel workers in the Caymans boarded up windows and moved tourists to safer shelter.

Forecasters said Mitch was far more powerful than Hurricane Georges, which killed more than 500 people in a rampage across the eastern Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico last month.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a hurricane warning for eastern Honduras, and authorities in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula urged residents to monitor the progress of the dangerous storm, which is between a Category 4 and Category 5 hurricane.

At midmorning, Mitch's center was 85 miles east-southeast of Honduras' Swan Islands and was moving west at 8 mph. It had swelled to nearly 300 miles across, and U.S. forecasters said it could grow even stronger today.

Honduran officials declared an alert yesterday and warned that Mitch could hit the coast today. Officials prepared to evacuate residents and asked fishermen to keep their boats in port.

In Grand Cayman, a British colony of about 28,000, schools closed today, boat owners secured their vessels and residents stocked up on food, water, batteries and other essentials.

A planned release of 400 endangered green sea turtle hatchlings was postponed indefinitely.

"There are guests who don't take lightly to this kind of thing," said Annette Beaumont, a clerk at Morritt's Tortuga Club and Resort on Grand Cayman, where tourists were moved to upper floors.

"We're turning back everyone who comes, unless they can't get a flight out," she said.

In Jamaica, Mitch disrupted flights, flooded streets, knocked down trees and forced church services to be canceled yesterday, but no injuries were immediately reported.

"We have managed to cope with what has happened," said Barbara Carvy, head of Jamaica's disaster-preparedness agency.

Sheets of rain reduced visibility to a few yards as squalls pelted Kingston and Jamaica's eastern districts. Authorities warned of mudslides and flash floods, especially in the mountains.

At a Kingston prison, guards used tear gas to quell a brief protest by inmates upset because the storm forced authorities to close the prison, preventing relatives from bringing food.

In Negril, on Jamaica's west coast, some tourists took advantage of a choppy sea to go body surfing along the city's seven-mile-long beach.

"I think this is as rough as it's going to get," said O'mar Robinson, manager of the Point Ciana Beach Resort, as he pointed to waves crashing within 10 feet of a seaside bar.

The western Caribbean had been spared by Hurricane Georges, which killed more than 500 people in the northeastern Caribbean last month.