Hurricane Jose ripped roofs from houses, tore down a newly built church and flung debris through deserted streets today as it hit Antigua head-on and threatened a string of other Caribbean islands.
Storm-weary islanders in neighboring St. Kitts, where a few homes remained roofless from last year's devastating hurricane season, braced themselves as Jose bore down packing 100 mph winds and drenching rain.
In a television broadcast, acting Prime Minister Sam Condor told the people of St. Kitts and Nevis to "prepare for the worst."
"It's projected to move right across the Leeward Islands. All of them are within the direct line of the storm--Montserrat, Antigua, Barbuda, Nevis, St. Barts, St. Kitts, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, Anguilla," said meteorologist Bill Frederick of the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami.
There was a strong chance the storm would not reach the U.S. East Coast, meteorologist Michael Formosa said.
But Jose was expected to hit the British Virgin Islands before veering to the north, a turn that would save the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The Bahamas were also placed on hurricane alert.
Tonight, the hurricane's center was about 40 miles southeast of Dutch St. Maarten and was moving west-northwest at about 10 mph. Jose's direct hit on Antigua's hilly landscape this afternoon appeared to have left the storm less organized, through its winds remained strong, said meteorologist Krissy Williams of the National Hurricane Center.
The 10th named storm of the waning hurricane season, Jose packed a relatively meager punch--its winds qualifying only for a Category 2 on the five-point scale. But it rattled the nerves of residents and tourists all over the Caribbean with a zigzag course that left forecasters disagreeing over where it would hit.
In Puerto Rico, residents in the flood-prone area of Trujillo Alto were advised to evacuate their homes. Even if the hurricane veers to the east and misses the island, heavy rains and swells still could overwhelm the lowlands.
In Antigua, Jose flattened small palm trees, ripped up utility poles and left residents without power and water service.
At the Yetton Beach Resort outside the Antiguan capital of St. John's, a ferocious wind howled through the cracks in boarded-up doors. A ceiling collapsed in a two-roomed unit of the hotel. No one was hurt in that incident.
The storm also destroyed a newly built Baptist church in the south of the island, ABS radio reported. Prime Minister Lester Bird was expected to dispatch security forces as soon as the storm subsided to prevent looting, the radio said.
Antigua's National Office of Disaster Services said one person was missing and 17 were injured on the 108-square-mile island. In St. Kitts, dozens of tourists tried to flee the hurricane, but airlines began canceling flights late Tuesday and the airport closed today.
CAPTION: Eddie Jacob secures aluminum panels on a Blockbuster video store in St. Croix, the U.S. Virgin Islands, in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Jose.