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Georges Invades Virgin Islands

September 24, 1998

CHRISTIANSTED, U.S. Virgin Islands (AP) _ Forcibly accustomed to the ravages of hurricanes, Virgin Islanders this week found themselves coping yet again _ without water, power, telephones and even roofs over their heads.

Hurricane Georges slammed into St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix on Monday, but on Wednesday many residents still could not pick up the phone and hear a dial tone.

In St. Croix, a looter killed a 62-year-old man while burglarizing his house. National Guard troops and 75 U.S. Marshals brought to the island at Gov. Roy Schneider’s request joined police in patrols against looting. An overnight curfew was in effect.

The storm’s 110-mph fury sank dozens of boats, smashed wooden piers and boardwalks, and stripped the pristine islands of much of their lush green foliage. It blew away many of the blue tarpaulins that had served as roofs for dozens of families since disastrous Hurricane Marilyn hit three years ago.

``I cry all the time when I see my home,″ said Milda Luz Mendez, 49, in St. Croix. ``This is the fourth time I’m losing my roof in 10 years, beginning with Hurricane Hugo. I don’t know if I can take this any longer.″

By initial accounts, this week’s damage wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as that caused by Marilyn, or Hurricane Hugo a decade ago. Several people were injured by flying debris, one man was hospitalized in a coma after a roof collapse and two people, both houseboat dwellers, were reported missing.

Yet Georges struck another blow to a tourism-dependent economy that has struggled since Hurricanes Marilyn and Luis paid visits in 1995 and Hurricane Bertha the next year.

Federal inspectors fanned out across the U.S. islands Wednesday to come up with a preliminary damage estimate.

Hardest hit was St. Croix, where officials estimated nearly a third of homes were damaged in Fredericksted, one of the island’s two main cities with a population of 5,000.

On Wednesday, crews removed coconut palms and other debris from streets in a city that hardly resembled its former self.

The Ann E. Abrahamson pier, a familiar sight to cruise ship visitors, was extensively damaged by a 20-foot storm surge swept into jewelry stores on the streets.

Also in Fredericksted, a 60-foot wooden fisherman’s wharf was destroyed, its last planks sinking into the sea long after the storm passed. A 15-foot boat was left sitting squarely on King Street, and other boats were sunken at marinas.

In Christiansted, with a population of about 3,000, a boardwalk tourist attraction was nearly washed away and the beach severely eroded around the well-known Hotel on the Key.

Wooden staircases and windows at the pink, Danish-style Christian Hotel were broken. The lawn of a new park was destroyed.

Across the three islands, some 2,400 tourists weathered out the storm in hotels, most of them in St. Thomas, according to the Virgin Islands Tourism Association. More than 900 residents were sheltered during the storm, the Red Cross said.

As well as phone service, many residents were still without power and water. But it was unclear how many because officials did not have firm figures yet.

National Guard troops, federal marshals and police manned roadblocks to enforce an 8 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew ``to prevent further injuries through accidental electrocutions,″ said Gov. Roy E. Schneider.

Many St. Croix residents remember the destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the rampant looting by hundreds that came after. Thirteen people were arrested this week on looting, curfew violations and burglary charges.

Luz Mendez fell victim to thieves who cleared out her house of appliances and clothes after she fled the roofless structure.

``It was the most horrible experience to see your roof lifted off and in one second to see the open sky,″ she said through tears. ``To make it worse these vagabonds cleaned out whatever I had left.″

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