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Hurricane Hortense Slams Into Puerto Rico, Sparks Flash Floods

September 10, 1996

BOQUERON, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Hurricane Hortense roared over southwest Puerto Rico early today, drenching the island with torrents of rain, snapping trees, blowing off roofs and sending rivers over their banks.

Life-threatening flash floods erupted all over the island including San Juan, the capital, the U.S. National Weather Service reported.

It said Hortense _ a 470-mile wide menace with winds of at least 80 mph _ struck land at Guanica, a charming seaside resort in southwest Puerto Rico.

``The winds is howling and the rain pouring and together they have cut off several roads, blocked by trees or washed away,″ police officer Neftali Velez said by telephone from Guanica. He said power had been cut off hours earlier.

Seas up to 12 feet high today flooded the southern coastline where rivers also burst their banks, threatening hundreds of vessels that had sought refuge in coves of mangrove swamps.

Forecasters called Hortense, the eighth storm and fifth hurricane of the Atlantic season, extremely volatile. 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.

The hurricane center said Hortense could be 300 miles east of Palm Beach, Fla., by Thursday morning, but it was not yet known how it would affect Florida’s eastern coast.

Guanica is known for its mangrove swamps, turquoise-water coves and a unique dry forest that is home to several endangered bird species. It is also where U.S. troops first landed in Puerto during the Spanish-American civil war, on July 25, 1898. Later, they made Puerto Rico a U.S. Commonwealth.

Earlier Monday, islanders boarded up windows, lined up to buy water, then rushed to the beaches to watch the waters rise, the winds churn the seas and surfers glory in the challenge.

Hundreds of tourist yachts, sailboats, house boats and government vessels sought shelter.

A giant tree trunk snapped under the force of the approaching hurricane, crushing eight cars on Hortense Street in San Juan, the capital.

Gov. Pedro Rossello, warning the whole island would be affected, urged people in low-lying areas to evacuate. Power was knocked out late Monday for 226,000 of the island’s 1.1 million consumers.

On Monday, while it was stalled 100 miles off St. Croix, Hortense whipped up waves that crashed over the 15-foot pier where cruise ships dock at Frederiksted, the second town of the U.S. Virgin Island. The main highway was four feet under water and homes flooded.

In La Parguera, a southwest fishing town in Puerto Rico, Johnny Cordero, 45, and Jose Cruz, 48, sipped beer, listened to the weather reports and watched the rising tide as the sun set Monday.

The town’s funky collection of restaurants, bars and motels were boarded up and the savanna-lined bay was lined with dozens of houseboats and low-lying homes.

``The storm is costing me thousands, thousands,″ said Cordero, who takes fishermen out to sea and tourists to the nearby phosphorescent bay on his boat.

The water had risen 14 inches in 40 minutes.

``It’s eating through the floor of that house,″ said Cruz, gazing at a nearby boathouse. ``If the hurricane hits here, you know that people will be out of work for three months.″

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