By Eric Nurse

Bridgetown, Barbados - Hurricane Ivan strengthened on Tuesday as it passed near Barbados with strong winds bending palm trees and blowing off roofs just days after Hurricane Frances tore through the Caribbean.

Ivan raced toward the Windward Islands with sustained winds of 175km/h, making it a Category 3 storm. Forecasters said the storm could become a Category 4 later on Tuesday night.

A hurricane warning was issued for St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and its dependencies. A tropical storm warning was in effect for Martinique, St Lucia and Barbados, where the island's 280 000 residents were preparing for the worst.

"Ivan poses a direct and serious threat," Prime Minister Owen Arthur said after an emergency session of cabinet on Monday.

Government offices closed early, and the children were ordered to remain home as teachers helped convert school buildings into hurricane shelters.

"It's still a strong hurricane," said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami. "Barbados and other islands could see trees blown down, roof damage and it doesn't take much wind to damage crops."

Those predictions quickly became reality. Barbados felt 128km/h hurricane force winds by midmorning Tuesday, said Jennifer Pralgo, another meteorologist at the hurricane centre. The force bent palm trees, taking some down.

Several islanders called private Voice of Barbados 92.9 FM radio to report that winds ripped off their roofs completely and others said they had minor roof damage. No injuries have been reported.

Authorities shut down electricity island-wide as a precautionary measure to prevent electrocution after fallen trees brought down power lines. Skies were dark, but there has been very little rain.

At 2pm, the hurricane's centre was about 175km south-southeast of Barbados. It was moving west near 30km/h and was expected to turn gradually toward the west-northwest later on Tuesday.

Residents struggled to put up metal hurricane shutters.

Islanders also rushed to buy supplies like lanterns, kerosene, bottled water, canned food, flashlights and batteries. Long lines formed at gas stations.

The manager of Dacosta Mannings hardware store in Bridgetown reported a heavy influx of shoppers.

"People were here before the store opened and when it did they rushed for the hurricane preparedness centre," Donna Susan Hinds said.

Ivan became the fourth major hurricane of the season on Sunday afternoon, after Hurricane Frances, which left at least two dead in the Bahamas and carved out a path of destruction that stretched from the Turks and Caicos Islands to the US state of Florida. - Sapa-AP