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First Hurricane of Atlantic Season Menaces Caribbean

July 8, 1996

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) _ Hurricane Bertha churned across a string of Caribbean islands today with torrential rains and 80 mph winds, sending people in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico scrambling for shelter.

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 just west of St. Martin at 8 a.m. EDT _ about 100 miles east southeast of St. Thomas, advancing west-northwest at 20 mph. Hurricane experts said the storm was expected to strengthen today and might produce a few tornadoes.

On St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, rising winds whipped up garbage cans and tree branches, whirling trash into the streets. Sheets of rain flooded streets and homes in the low-lying Water Gut neighborhood.

More than 200 people were in shelters in Fredericksted, said administrator Lawrence Bastian. He said some people refused to leave their trailers, which were brought in as temporary housing for victims of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

The eye of the storm was expected to pass over St. Thomas _ the main U.S. Virgin Island devastated by Hurricane Marilyn in September _ at mid-morning, and Puerto Rico’s northeast corner several hours later.

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.

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.

Forecasters said there is about a 10 percent chance the storm will strike Florida, the nearest point on the U.S. mainland.

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

Puerto Rico braced for the storm, opening some 200 emergency shelters and ordering airports closed this morning.

``We’re still a few hours away from determining if we’re in the eye,″ Puerto Rico Civil Defense spokesman Bob Brito said by telephone 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 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.

Tourists were stranded on several islands.

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.

Update hourly