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Hurricane Bertha Tears Through Caribbean

July 9, 1996

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) _ Battering buildings and ships at sea, Hurricane Bertha slammed into the Virgin Islands on Monday with torrential rains and winds that gusted to 103 mph.

The first hurricane of the Atlantic season powered over a string of northeastern Caribbean islands, growing to a 400-mile-wide menace heading directly for St. Thomas, the main U.S. Virgin Island.

An American surfer was missing in the rough seas and high winds off Puerto Rico. Police said Lilton Jones, 35, of New York City was Bertha’s first victim.

A Venezuelan boat carrying 42 people was said to be drifting in the hurricane, off Puerto Rico. Ham radio operators said they had reports that half of those on board were already missing. The U.S. Coast Guard said it was having problems finding the ship to attempt a rescue.

At 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Bertha was near St. Thomas and about 80 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico, advancing west-northwest at 15 mph.

Hundreds of people crowded government shelters in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and another 1,280 people did the same in Puerto Rico.

A St. Thomas school building weakened by Hurricane Marilyn last year collapsed Monday morning, a chilling foretaste as islanders anxiously awaited the main brunt of the storm.

A blue tarpaulin shot through the air in downtown Charlotte Amalie, followed by two pieces of lumber, as Bertha turned someone’s temporary roof into lethal projectiles.

``At 90 miles an hour, a person is turned into a leaf″ by hurricane winds, said forecaster Matt Bragaw.

An iguana clung desperately to a rocking Flamboyant tree branch on Blackbeard’s Hill in Charlotte Amalie, the main city on St. Thomas.

On St. Croix, 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. The door of a large warehouse was ripped open by winds.

The governors of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have put police and troops on alert to prevent the looting that often follows hurricanes.

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

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

Earlier Monday, Bertha passed over St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, uprooting trees but doing relatively little damage.

The British Virgin Islands’ ZBVI Radio said Bertha tore the roofs of several homes and a government clinic in Tortola.

Also in Bertha’s way were Saba, St. Eustatius, Guadeloupe and St. Barthelemy. Most of the 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.

Eighty percent of homes on St. Thomas were damaged or destroyed by Marilyn and fewer than half have been repaired. On Antigua, 600 families were living in homes made unsafe by Hurricane Luis.

Bertha appeared to have spared most of them as the storm concentrated on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

``Strong winds, heavy rain but no structural damage reported,″ said the Four Seasons Resort in Nevis.

On Dutch St. Maarten, which was nearly flattened by Hurricane Luis, Bertha caused some structural damage and power outages Monday morning. Some people suffered minor injuries, mainly cuts and abrasions as they boarded up properties.

People living in a tent village since their homes were destroyed by Luis last year were moved to shelters on St. Maarten.

On St. Thomas, nearly all hotel and motel rooms were filled as residents sought shelters more secure than their homes.

Some found unconventional havens. About a dozen people, including two tourists from Yuma, Ariz., spent the night on the floor of a supermarket in Red Hook.

They had a Monopoly game going Monday amid an almost party atmosphere.

``We’re enjoying it. We don’t have many things like this in Yuma,″ said Roberta Evans, 53.

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