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Hurricane Lenny Threatens Caribbean

November 17, 1999

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Packing 115 mph winds and torrential rains, Hurricane Lenny careened past the Dominican Republic Tuesday on a rare west-to-east course aimed directly at Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Residents who had hoped the storm season was waning were instead rushing to grocery stores to stock up on water, crackers and canned tuna. People piled up furniture in their homes as officials warned serious flooding was possible.

``I’m worried about this one,″ said Idelisa Ramos, while three hardware store employees struggled to mount a new 600-gallon water tank on top of her minivan in Bayamon. ``It’s such a strange storm, it can’t be up to any good.″

At 10 p.m. EST Tuesday, Lenny was 170 miles south-southwest of San Juan, speeding east-northeast at 16 mph. Hurricane winds extended 60 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds another 175 miles. Late Tuesday it became a Category 3, a designation of a dangerous storm with winds from 111-130 mph.

Lenny surprised many by forming so late in the hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30. Most hurricanes also follow an opposite path, forming in the mid-Atlantic and sweeping northwest through the Caribbean toward the United States. Forecasters say there is no danger of Lenny hitting the mainland.

The storm was expected to hit Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands Wednesday morning.

Already on Tuesday, its outerbands brought torrential rain and dangerous, battering waves into nearshore waters off Puerto Rico’s southeast coast, the U.S. National Weather Service said.

Officials in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands warned the storm could dump up to 15 inches of rain, raising fears of deadly landslides and flash floods in areas already saturated by more than a week of rain. The islands barely escaped Hurricane Jose last month.

``We’re very concerned,″ said Max Mayfield, deputy director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Officials issued hurricane watches and tropical storm warnings for Dutch St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Saba, Anguilla, Nevis, St. Kitts, Montserrat, Barbuda and Antigua.

At a Home Depot near San Juan, nervous shoppers consulted a large wooden map where employees posted stickers tracking Lenny’s relentless advance.

``We’re taking no chances,″ said Gadiel Rivera, a 30-year-old accountant buying plywood to board up the windows of his home.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gov. Charles Turnbull declared a state of emergency and a curfew from 9 p.m. to prevent looting, and the U.S. National Guard was placed on alert. Cars jammed gas stations, supermarkets ran out of shopping baskets and tourists swamped airline counters in an increasingly vain effort to leave; the St. Croix airport closed at 6 p.m. and the St. Thomas airport was to close at 10 p.m.

``We’re trying to get to Miami,″ complained Stephanie Lewis of New York City. ``I’m amazed that they didn’t schedule more flights.″

In the nearby British Virgin Islands, schools, government offices and airports closed Tuesday afternoon; only nurses, doctors, police and essential workers remained working.

The storm was also hurting the efforts of a Kentucky lawyer trying to become the first American and the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic. Tori Murden has rowed more than 2,500 miles since leaving the Canary Islands in mid-September and is within 400 miles of her destination, Guadeloupe. But waves pounded up by the storm have pushed her back.

As Lenny passed south of the Dominican Republic, schools closed but most businesses and street markets bustled with activity under overcast skies. Dominican navy ships lined berths on the Ozama River, out of harm’s way. Radio and television stations broadcast bulletins of the storm’s progress to residents still jittery after Hurricane Georges’ flooding last year killed 283 people in the Dominican Republic and more than 220 in Haiti.

American Airlines canceled some flights on its American Eagle commuter airline from San Juan to Santo Domingo, and tourists were stranded at the St. Thomas airport. Cruise ships docked in St. Thomas and San Juan took off to the west to escape the storm.

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