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Hurricane Hortense Pounds Puerto Rico With Torrential Rains, Five Killed

September 10, 1996

BOQUERON, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Hurricane Hortense pounded Puerto Rico with 18 inches of torrential rain today, blacking out much of the island, sending rivers over their banks and washing away cars. Five people were killed and 18 were missing and feared dead.

A 2-year-old boy died in a mudslide in the southwestern community of Guanica from a storm that meterologists say may set rainfall records. The body of a 50-year-old woman was found in a car in nearby Lares, and three people drowned in Guayama and Turabo.

Gov. Pedro Rossello said 90 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.6 million people were without electricity and potable water and that he would ask Washington to declare the island a disaster area so it could receive emergency federal assistance. Floodwaters destroyed 200 homes in and around Ponce.

``This is likely to be the major heavy rain-producer we’ve ever had,″ Ron Block of the U.S. National Weather Service said this morning in San Juan. ``Virtually everything is at a standstill. We’ve had unofficial reports of vehicles washing away. ... Everything is effectively closed.″

The eye of the Atlantic season’s fifth hurricane crossed over southwestern Puerto Rico before dawn today with 80 mph winds, and headed across the Mona Passage at 12 mph toward the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic.

The storm, which has hurricane-force winds extending outward about 60 miles, is expected to strike a glancing blow to northeastern Dominican Republic today, then head in a west-northwesterly direction toward the Turks and Caicos and southernmost Bahamas.

It will be at least a day before it’s known how close the hurricane might come to the U.S. East Coast, though forecasters say the storm has a 10 percent chance of striking Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday. Meterologists say the storm would more likely target the Northeast later this week.

Overnight and early today, life-threatening flash floods erupted all over the island including San Juan, the capital, the National Weather Service reported.

Authorities reported eastern Naguabo town had been drenched by 17.9 inches of rain since 6 p.m. Monday and that it was still pouring at noon; Villalba in the central mountains said 17.6 inches of rain had fallen in the same period.

Meterologists said 12 inches had soaked St. Croix and 10 inches in San Juan over the same period, with more forecast for later today.

``Civil Defense of Puerto Rico reports almost all highways intransitable and most rivers and lakes flooded or out of their banks,″ the weather service said.

The storm could be the most damaging to hit the region since Hurricane Hugo, which battered the eastern third of Puerto Rico in 1989, causing 12 deaths and $1.3 billion in damage before striking the southeastern United States, Block said.

Hortense, the eighth named storm of a hurricane season that ends Nov. 30, comes on the heels of Hurricane Fran, which skirted the Caribbean before slamming into the eastern United States late last week, killing at least 30 people.

Bands of rains were inundating much of Puerto Rico, especially the rugged interior, and were expected to continue throughout the day. Heavy squalls were also reported this morning in St. Croix and St. Thomas to the east, Block said.

Forecasters said the hurricane was unusual in that the worst of the winds and rains were to the east of the eye of the storm, over inland Puerto Rico rather than open sea.

A giant tree trunk snapped under the force of the approaching hurricane, crushing eight cars on _ no kidding _ Hortense Street in San Juan.

While the storm was still 100 miles from St. Croix, Hortense whipped up waves Monday that crashed over the 15-foot pier where cruise ships dock at Frederiksted, the second town of the U.S. Virgin Island. The main highway was four feet under water.

Seas up to 15 feet flooded Puerto Rico’s southern coastline, eroding beaches and threatening hundreds of vessels that had sought refuge in coves of mangrove swamps.

Guanica, where Hortense came ashore about 2 a.m. today, is known for its turquoise-water coves and a unique dry forest that is home to several endangered bird species. It is also where U.S. troops first landed during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

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