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Residents Rush to Get Ready as Hurricane Hortense Roils the Seas

September 10, 1996

PONCE, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Islanders boarded up windows and lined up to buy water, then rushed to the beaches Monday to watch the sea, churned by the outer edge of a strengthening Hurricane Hortense.

The National Weather Service hurriedly issued a hurricane warning for Puerto Rico late Monday morning and authorities posted a hurricane watch for the Dominican Republic’s south coast.

Hundreds of tourist yachts, sailboats, house boats and government vessels sought shelter in mangrove swamps in bays of southwestern Puerto Rico.

From 100 miles off St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, waves the height of a house crashed over the 15-foot pier where cruise ships anchor at Frederiksted. Winds howled and gusted near 70 mph, driving sheets of rain that covered roads with 4 feet of water and flooded homes.

Forecasters called Hortense, the eighth storm and third hurricane of the Atlantic season, volatile and dangerous. It comes on the heels of Hurricane Fran, which skirted the Caribbean before slamming into the eastern United States late last week, killing more than two dozen people.

Forecasters said there was a 6 percent chance the coast of Florida could feel the effects of Hurricane Hortense by Thursday morning.

``These storms are crazy. I pray it doesn’t veer toward us,″ Jose Escobar said, perched on a ladder to board up the window of the store where he works in Ponce, a southern Puerto Rican city renowned for its Spanish colonial architecture.

Escobar hurried to finish work so he could go home to wait out the storm with his wife and five children.

At 8 p.m. EDT Monday, the center of Hortense was about 70 miles south-southeast of Ponce, the National Hurricane Center near Miami said.

Hortense was moving to the northwest at 7 mph and was expected to gain strength. Hurricane-force winds would spread across the south coast of Puerto Rico overnight as the storm neared Puerto Rico, forcasters said.

Hortense grew to hurricane strength Monday and enlarged to a 470-mile-wide mass, with sustained winds near 80 mph in the center and weaker tropical storm-force winds toward the edge.

Hortense also changed direction, stalling south of St. Croix then drifting in a northwest direction that would bring hurricane-strength winds dangerously close to Puerto Rico, the hurricane center said.

At the Tropical Si liquor store in Ponce, people stood in long lines to buy water. Rafael Martinez, 42, waited nearly half an hour.

``This is the last thing I have to do. What will be, will be,″ he said.

Shelves of rum went untouched since Gov. Pedro Rosello on Sunday banned liquor sales during the passage of the storm. Police said they cited 18 storekeepers for illegally selling alcohol.

Couples with children in tow drove to the beach at the southernmost tip of the city to watch in awe and trepidation as the gusting winds whipped up waves nearly 4 feet high. Surfers gloried in the challenge.

Children on bikes raced from from point to point to watch the waves, and cruising police patrols stopped to check that no one needed help.

Carmen Emilia Rodriguez, 69, was getting ready to evacuate her 84-year-old mother and a 91-year-old neighbor from their tiny beachfront homes. Already, waves were slapping the rocks 10 feet in front of the porch.

She was taking them to a friend’s home further inland in Ponce.

``All the garbage and all the driftwood washes up here during each storm,″ Rodriguez said. ``We are going.″

Her next-door neighbor, William Torres, 76, wasn’t budging. Shirtless in shorts and sandals, he watched the churning surf and said he would stay ``until the last minute. Nobody knows what is going to happen.

``Until the sea surges over the rocks, I have no fear.″

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