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Georges Kills 20 in Caribbean

September 23, 1998

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ After plowing through the northern Caribbean, Hurricane Georges carved into the Dominican Republic on Tuesday, killing 11 people, uprooting trees and causing severe flooding that sent Dominicans and tourists alike fleeing to shelters.

The latest fatalities brought the death toll throughout the region to at least 20.

The mammoth storm was on a trajectory that could send it crashing into the Florida Keys by late Thursday or early Friday. Authorities urged tourists to leave the island chain, as residents began boarding up windows in anticipation of Georges’ fury.

The storm caught the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo almost entirely unprepared Tuesday. Forecasters had expected it to hit only the northern coast, but Georges changed course and headed straight for the tropical capital of 3 million people.

Even more than in Puerto Rico, where Georges exploded shop and car windows, flipped small airplanes and whisked away satellite dishes, the damage was expected to be extensive.

In this poor country where the minimum wage is about $140 a month, the wooden houses that line riverbeds and hillsides would be no match for the storm’s 110 mph winds.

As the darkness approached, Dominican President Leonel Fernandez told his countrymen the island’s fate was in God’s hands.

``For the moment, the only thing left for us to do is to raise our prayers to the Almighty,″ said the president.

Presidential spokesman Adriano Miguel Tejada said 11 people were confirmed dead, including five in Santo Domingo. Since Monday, Georges also claimed the lives of four people in Puerto Rico, three in St. Kitts and two in Antigua. Authorities originally had reported five dead in Puerto Rico.

In neighboring Haiti, which shares the western half of the island of Hispaniola and is also on the edge of the storm’s path, people prepared to battle the hurricane amid even more profound poverty.

The Haitian government has only been able to muster $130,000 for emergency assistance, said civil defense spokeswoman Yolaine Surena. Cars streamed out of the capital, Port-au-Prince, as some headed for cover farther inland.

``We’re scared a little, but we have a lot of faith,″ said supermarket clerk Nadine Augustin, 19.

At 8 p.m. EDT, the eye of Georges was located over the Dominican Republic, about 110 miles east-northeast of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.

Maximum sustained winds had decreased to about 95 mph, making Georges a category 1 hurricane, and were expected to diminish until the storm passes over Hispaniola.

In the Florida Keys, visitors were urged to take airline flights while they were still available, or to leave before the rush by way of the Overseas Highway, the only road linking the 110-mile ribbon of islands.

David Chorney, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said there was ``a pretty good probability″ that Georges would hit Florida.

``As far as intensity, it’s still too early to tell what it’s going to do,″ he said. After crossing the Caribbean islands and getting back over water, he said, ``there’s a good chance it could redevelop and strengthen again.″

The storm had already caused what is expected to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Puerto Rico, where the entire island lost power and most had their water cut. Tens of thousands took refuge in shelters.

In the capital of San Juan, where almost half the island’s people live, downed power lines and trees fell onto flooded roads, making some impassable.

On Tuesday, residents began the sobering task of recovery.

``After the storm is always the worst,″ said Paula Aponte Figueroa, 71, as she swatted at mosquitoes in the musty heat, the roof of her house ripped off by the winds. ``You’ve got flooding, you’ve got mosquitoes and I have nowhere to go.″

The strength of Georges’ winds was evident as it ripped the roof off the cab of a water tanker truck passing through Santo Domingo, flipping it onto the hood of the vehicle. The driver continued on, hanging out the window to see where he was going.

In addition to the winds, Georges flooded parts of the Dominican capital. One highway overpass normally 22 feet above ground was at water level.

Looters could be seen carrying television sets and microwave ovens on their heads through waist-deep water.

Police Chief Jose Anibal Sanz said officers fired at several people who were looting a shopping center.

``Under no circumstances are we going to allow vandals to take advantage of this misfortune,″ Sanz said.

Some people stood in whipping winds Tuesday morning trying to nail plywood boards over their windows. Many residents simply sat back and waited.

``I live hanging on to God,″ said tour guide Fausto Lorenzo Cipion, 38. ``I’m not afraid of this.″

Authorities in Santo Domingo didn’t open shelters until 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, hours after strong winds and heavy bursts of rain had reached the capital. People continued to stream into shelters even as the full force of Georges hit.

One family that tried to reach a shelter in a public school earlier in the morning was turned back by a guard who fired shots in the air, local news media reported.

Power went out even before the full force of the hurricane hit.

Hotels evacuated tourists from their rooms overnight and put them up in conference rooms or ballrooms.

``We’ve been very, very bored,″ said flight attendant Joanne Jones, who is from England, as she rested her head on a table at the Jaragua Hotel. ``Mostly we’ve just been sitting here.″

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