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Hurricane Georges Lashes Caribbean

September 22, 1998

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ The season’s most ferocious hurricane plowed into Puerto Rico on Monday, killing three people in a roof collapse after raking other parts of the Caribbean and forcing thousands of people into shelters.

Packing 130-mph winds and churning up 20-foot waves, Hurricane Georges toppled power lines, mangled trees and blew away roofs as families huddled in shelters in St. Kitts, Antigua and other islands earlier Monday.

Mari Tere Pacheco, a spokeswoman for the civil defense authority in Puerto Rico, said the three died when their home’s roof collapsed on top of them in the San Juan suburb of Bayamon. She did not provide the victim’s identities or other details.

``This hurricane has the characteristics of being the strongest that we have confronted in Puerto Rico in decades,″ Gov. Pedro Rossello warned earlier. ``Our people have very difficult days to come.″

At 7 p.m. EDT, Georges was 25 miles south of San Juan after passing St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where all power was knocked out.

Maximum sustained winds had increased to 115 mph by 5:30 p.m. EDT with gusts as high as 130 mph, upgrading Georges to a category 3 hurricane, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Moving west-northwest at 16 mph, the storm packed hurricane-force winds up to 85 miles from the eye, mostly to the northeast.

The Hurricane Center warned the storm winds _ while diminished from a monstrous 150 mph recorded Sunday _ remained ``extremely dangerous,″ and director Jerry Jarrell said there were indications Georges was intensifying.

Advance teams from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI and the American Red Cross arrived in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. President Clinton declared states of emergency in both territories.

The first strong winds were felt around 3 p.m. EDT in the San Juan area, where almost half of Puerto Rico’s 3.8 million people live.

Rossello banned liquor sales and ordered more than 330 shelters opened. Banks and schools closed, airlines canceled flights to and from the U.S. mainland, and ferry service was suspended. People were ordered off the beaches.

More than 9,700 people left their homes for shelters in San Juan, Arecibo, Mayaguez and other cities.

With up to 15 inches of rain expected in Puerto Rico’s mountains, the threat of mudslides drove many mountain residents to shelters in San Juan.

``The roof of my house is made of wood and cardboard, and I’d rather be here before it goes flying,″ said Miguel Mercado Romero.

In St. Croix, raging winds bent palm trees to one-third of their height, shook parked cars and destroyed part of the boardwalk. Gov. Roy Schneider, speaking on WVWI-AM radio, said a 50-foot sailboat had been driven aground. In St. Thomas, also part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, winds were at about 75 mph and increasing.

Georges also was expected to hit the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Hurricane watches went into effect for the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands and there was concern as far away as Florida, where workers put shutters over the windows at Key West City Hall.

In Cuba, the Interior Ministry issued a hurricane warning to residents of the island’s easternmost provinces. The area has been hit hard by a drought in recent months.

Some cruise ships headed south to get out of Georges’ way, and others changed their schedules to make Caribbean stops before heading to storm-free Mexico.

Georges hit land Sunday night, downing trees and utility lines, ripping wooden and galvanized roofs from homes and pelting sheets of rain into residences on the northern Leeward islands.

In Antigua, where 5,700 people spent the night in shelters, the storm split open government-built homes in northern Cedar Grove Garden and ripped corrugated roofs off hundreds of other houses.

Antiguan shop owners erected sandbag barricades to stop flooding. Civil defense workers distributed flashlights, mosquito coils, water and toilet paper to nervous shelter residents.

All of the island’s television and radio stations were off the air, and rain washed out the road near Urlins, on the southern coast, stranding a bus. It was pulled from the water by backhoe, and no injuries were reported.

In the French island of Guadeloupe, swirling winds knocked out power in several towns. One man was shot and killed by guards while trying to escape from jail.

Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States, ordered hard hats, chainsaws, pry bars and other gear that might be needed if the hurricane strikes. Drivers with city vehicles were told to fill their gasoline tanks.

``Everybody’s in anticipation. This is pins and needles,″ said Dolores Ruvo, dockmaster at Whale Harbor Marina, home to 20 fishing and drift boats in the Florida Keys.

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