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After hitting the Caribbean, Hurricane Hugo pounded South Carolina.

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Deadly Hugo Slams Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands

Storm Leaves Thousands Homeless

By Michael York
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 1989; Page A01
© The Washington Post

CORAL GABLES, FLA., SEPT. 18 -- Hurricane Hugo slammed the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico with heavy rain and winds of 125 mph today before turning northwest toward the southern Bahamas. Unofficial counts placed the death toll in the Caribbean area at more than 20, with tens of thousands reported homeless.

The full extent of damage could not be determined immediately because much of the northern Caribbean, from Anguilla to San Juan, was left without electric power or telephone service. Most news about stricken areas came from amateur-radio operators and a special radio network linking mayors on Puerto Rico to the governor's office.

Officials at the National Hurricane Center here, emphasizing that forecasting a hurricane's path is tricky, said Hugo could touch land in the area of Florida to North Carolina by Friday.

In eastern Puerto Rico, four persons were reported killed and the storm destroyed most buildings and homes after an intense evacuation effort, according to Jaime B. Fuster, the island's resident commissioner in Washington.

Fuster said almost all of the island's agriculture had been wiped out, including "fruits such as bananas intended for the European market and coffee which was ready to harvest." Many roads and bridges washed away, he added.

Fuster said his information came from a radio hookup through Andrews Air Force Base to the office of Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon in San Juan. He said the island's mayors were contacted.

Fuster said much of the eastern coast was essentially destroyed. He estimated that about 90 percent of buildings and other structures were blown down. Hernandez Colon was reported planning to ask President Bush to declare the island a disaster area after a tour found nearly 28,000 people left homeless.

When Hugo reached the island's central mountain range, much of its force was dissipated, he said. Severe flooding was reported in the San Juan area, but most structures remained standing, Fuster said.

Mudslides, often a cause of trouble in Puerto Rico, had not been reported in heavily populated areas of the island, according to amateur-radio reports from the San Juan area monitored in Arlington, Va., by ham operator Walt Wurfel.

The U.S. Forest Service office in Rio Piedras reported "severe damage" on national forest lands, and Jose Salinas, the forest supervisor, requested chain-saw teams from a regional office in Atlanta to help, according to reports heard by Wurfel.

Amateur-radio reports heard at the National Hurricane Center indicated that Hugo's force was devastating.

In Guayama, in southern Puerto Rico, an operator reported that six people died, some from electric shock when they came in contact with downed wires. An operator in a San Juan suburb reported winds of 120 mph and said stores were looted.

From tiny Culebra, a Puerto Rican island midway between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, came reports that 80 percent of homes were destroyed and that many of the 2,000 residents had fled into dense mangroves for shelter. Four bodies and more than 100 boats were reported washed ashore.

In the Virgin Islands, according to amateur-radio reports, between half and 80 percent of homes on St. Croix were destroyed. An operator in St. Thomas reported that work crews had started clearing debris but that at least five days would be needed to restore electric power and telephone service.

In Washington, spokesman Bill McAda said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had received a brief message from an Air National Guard unit in St. Croix telling of devastation on that U.S. island.

The report from the 285th Combat Communications Flight bluntly said: "Initial assessment after Hurricane Hugo: We need help. St. Croix devastated by Hugo. 90 percent of buildings damaged, 70% destroyed. No power. No phones. No outside {communications}."

The airport control tower was said to have been destroyed and the runway heavily damaged but repairable. McAda said FEMA has received "very sketchy information" from the region and had been unable to contact either the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico late yester- day.

In a report monitored by Wurfel, someone connected with a company that charters sailboats out of St. Thomas called to ask about the condition of the fleet. The reply was: "The power lines are down, the roads are closed, telephone service is out, but we'll try to have an answer by tomorrow."

Hugo's first landfall came late Saturday in Guadeloupe, a French island, and it struck Montserrat, a British island, early Sunday.

On Guadeloupe, the airport control tower was blown down, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Other reports said that most roads were blocked and that roofs were blown from most buildings.

Reports from Montserrat said that at least six people were killed, that virtually all of the 12,000 residents had lost their homes and that the island's hospital was destroyed. One radio operator reported that all 200 students at the island's American University of the Caribbean were safe but had no water or shelter.

Another report said sailors from the British frigate HMS Alacrity had arrived in Montserrat and were working to open the airport by Tuesday morning.

On Guadeloupe, the airport control tower was blown down, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Other reports said that most of the island's roads were blocked and that the roofs were blown from most buildings.

Hugo's itinerary read like that of a cruise ship, with calls at St. Kitts, Nevis, Dominica, Antigua and St. Martin.

Not since Hurricane David in 1979 had a storm of such force struck Puerto Rico. In the Virgin Islands, Hugo marked the end of a calm period that lasted more than 30 years.

At midnight, Hugo's center was about 125 miles northwest of San Juan, near latitude 20.2 north and longitude 67.3 west. Its winds were near 110 mph, and it was moving to the northwest at 12 mph.

According to forecasters' computer analysis of the storm and surrounding weather patterns, Hugo is expected to move northwest through the Bahamas. The eye should be about 50 miles north of Grand Bahama Island, or about 70 miles east of the Florida coast, by 2 p.m. Thursday, forecasters said.

Hurricane specialist Robert A. Case said that projection could be inaccurate by as much as 300 miles in any direction.

Case noted that hurricanes do not direct their own course. That is determined, he said, by winds in the upper atmosphere and by surrounding low- and high-pressure systems.

Case and other hurricane specialists are watching a low-pressure trough centered over the Appalachians. If the trough develops as expected into a strong low-pressure system and moves south, Case said, it could pull Hugo ashore Friday between Cape Canaveral and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

"These things are extremely unpredictable, and it's an inexact science, to say the least," Case said.

Staff writers Bill McAllister and Don Phillips contributed to this report from Washington.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post

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