Hurricane Barrels Into Caribbean


Tuesday, August 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten (AP) — Debby barreled into the northeastern Caribbean on Tuesday, becoming the first storm of the Atlantic hurricane season to make landfall and sending scores of islanders into hastily opened shelters.

Airlines canceled flights, schools and banks closed, storekeepers nailed plywood to windows and cruise lines diverted ships as Debby, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, swirled west-northwest through the northern Leeward Islands at about 21 mph.

In St. Maarten — battered in recent years by a series of hurricanes — the government declared a curfew to remain in effect until the all-clear is declared. ``We received some heavy winds and rain overnight, and we expect 5 to 6 inches of rainfall,'' said Eddie Williams of GVBC Radio.

The U.S. Virgin Islands also declared a curfew, and Gov. Charles Turnbull declared a state of emergency in the U.S. territory. Speaking on Radio One, Turnbull urged residents to stay calm and said he was asking for federal help in advance of the storm.

At 8 a.m., Debby was centered about 65 miles east-southeast of the British Virgin Islands and was moving toward the west-northwest near 21 mph.

Debby's maximum sustained winds reached 75 mph, just above the hurricane threshold of 74 mph, and were expected to strengthen further.

Dangerous battering waves and heavy rains were expected as Debby became a hurricane early Tuesday on a projected path that included the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the vulnerable, populous Dominican Republic.

In Puerto Rico, officials warned of life-threatening flash floods and mudslides. Sporadic rain bands accompanied by lightning flashed across San Juan Bay, and wind gusts bent palm trees.

Schools closed, shelters opened, people jammed stores for emergency supplies and tourists boarded early morning flights from San Juan for the U.S. mainland. Airlines canceled afternoon flights, when Debby was expected to approach the island — but U.S. Postal Service workers were ordered to report for work as usual.

Ten ships and two submarines in the USS Harry Truman battle group abandoned training off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques — the site of recurrent protests over military exercises — and moved 300 miles south, the U.S. Navy said.

Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 25 miles from the storm's center, and tropical storm-force winds extended up to 175 miles outward.

Hurricane warnings were in effect for Anguilla, St. Eustatius, the British and U.S. Virgin islands, Puerto Rico and the north coast of the Dominican Republic. A hurricane watch was in effect for the southeastern Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos islands and northern Haiti.

Hurricane warnings were discontinued for Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat and Guadeloupe, and a tropical storm warning was dropped for Dominica. Forecasters said it was too early to gauge any threat to the U.S. mainland.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the National Park Service closed its grounds on the island of St. John, and boaters moved to safe harbor, securing their vessels in mangrove swamps.

In Montserrat, officials warned rains could cause mudflows of debris from the Soufriere Hills volcano down the Belham River, though that area is in the restricted danger zone.

Antiguan officials warned residents to prepare for a direct hit. Electricity on some parts of Antigua went out, apparently turned off to avoid storm damage. Motorists lined up for gas, and people living in roofless homes since last year's hurricanes headed to shelters.

Carnival Cruise Lines said it was diverting three of its ships now in the eastern Caribbean to areas farther north, west and south to avoid the storm.

Elsewhere, Hurricane Alberto, the longest-lived August tropical storm on record, was moving in a circle in the open Atlantic. The hurricane was about 895 miles west-northwest of the Azores and had accelerated, moving north-northeast. Alberto formed Aug. 4 and hasn't threatened land.

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On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov