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First Hurricane of Atlantic Season Menaces Caribbean

July 8, 1996

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) _ Hurricane Bertha bore down on the U.S. and British Virgin Islands today, sending residents and tourists scrambling for shelter from the storm’s 80 mph winds.

The first hurricane of the Atlantic season prompted hurricane warnings for Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and all of the Caribbean’s northeastern islands as well as the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Bertha grew overnight to a 400-mile-wide menace and was centered 25 miles southeast of St. Martin at 5 a.m. EDT, advancing west-northwest at 20 mph. Hurricane experts said some strengthening of the storm was expected today.

The eye of the storm was expected to pass over St. Thomas _ the main U.S. Virgin Island devastated by Hurricane Marilyn in September _ around 8 a.m.

To do that, its path would first take it over St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. John and St. Croix.

First among the islands to report damage was Antigua, which was buffeted late Sunday by 59 mph winds spawned by Bertha that cut electrical power.

Puerto Rico braced for the storm to hit this afternoon, opening some 200 emergency shelters and planning to close all its airports.

``We’re still a few hours away from determining if we’re in the eye,″ Puerto Rico Civil Defense spokesman Bob Brito said in a telephone interview at 6 a.m. EDT. ``But the massive body that Bertha is carrying has enough rain and wind to put us out of business for a couple of days.″

Residents and tourists stranded in the Virgin Islands scrambled to protect themselves and their belongings as a band of showers heralded the storm’s advance.

``I’m so scared,″ said Daphne Vanterpool, gulping back tears as she stood in her St. Thomas living room, still roofless since Marilyn swept through. ``I’ve been crying all morning. Packing up and crying.″

Nearly all hotel and motel rooms on St. Thomas were filled as residents sought shelters more secure than their homes.

At Charlotte Amalie High School, 20 people took shelter Sunday night and listened to Radio WSTA, which swapped its calypso rhythms for hymns that played between weather bulletins.

``I’m feeling good now that I’m here. I didn’t feel safe where I was,″ Elenora Armstrong said, shushing her three granddaughters as people turned in for the night on gymnastics mats.

An Air Force hurricane plane recorded 80 mph sustained winds today when it flew into Bertha, the U.S. National Weather Service said. The storm is spinning off hurricane-force winds that extend 115 miles from its center.

The weather service said up to 6 inches of rain could accompany the storm, along with waves surging 2 to 4 feet above normal. Small craft were advised to stay in port.

Governors and prime ministers in the Caribbean ordered police and troops on an alert. Gov. Roy L. Schneider of the U.S. Virgin Islands ordered a 24-hour curfew beginning at noon today in an effort to keep people off the streets and prevent the looting that took place after Marilyn.

Earlier, supermarkets were packed with worried shoppers who bought out supplies of bottled water and filled shopping carts with batteries, matches, propane and lanterns.

Bertha menaces numerous islands that it dwarfs in size, including Montserrat, where residents have also been threatened by an active volcano for more than a year.

Hurricane warnings also were broadcast in Saba, St. Eustatius, Dominica, Guadeloupe and St. Barthelemy.

Most of those islands were hard-hit last year, when Hurricanes Marilyn and Luis struck within days of each other, destroying thousands of homes in the worst Atlantic hurricane season in 60 years.

Tourists were stranded on several islands.

All airports on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were to shut as of 9 a.m. EDT today, said Brito, the Civil Defense spokesman. He said flights were being stepped up early today before that deadline.

Brito said cruise ships plying the waters near the storm’s projected path were rerouted to the southern Caribbean.

On Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands, Jim Levine, 32, had tried to book a last-minute flight home to New York City on Sunday.

``My wife is in the room packing and having a heart attack right now,″ Levine said.

Others chose to ride out the storm.

``We have laid in a stock of libations and nibblies,″ said Harlan Veal, a California judge.

National Weather Service forecasters say at this point there is about a 10 percent chance the storm will strike Florida, the nearest point on the U.S. mainland.

Update hourly