Archive for Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Hurricane Debby lands in Caribbean

Storm heads toward Puerto Rico; U.S. mainland landfall uncertain

August 23, 2000

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— Compact, quick-moving Debby became the first hurricane to make landfall this season, hitting several small Caribbean islands Tuesday on a northwesterly route that menaced Puerto Rico and the Bahamas archipelago.

Forecasters said it was too early to gauge the threat to the U.S. mainland.

With winds up to 75 mph, Debby was a Category 1 hurricane, apparently causing little damage on Antigua, Anguilla and other small islands Tuesday morning. It then made a slight -- but crucial -- turn to the north that meant populous Puerto Rico and the vulnerable Dominican Republic could be spared the worst.

"We've fared well. I'm looking outside at my garden, which was devastated by Hurricane Lenny last year, and it still has flowers," said Glen Holm, director of the tourism bureau on the Dutch island of Saba.

On nearby St. Maarten, battered by hurricanes in recent years, a curfew was lifted and meteorologist Ashford James celebrated the passage of "Little Debby."

Still, the threat was sufficient to disrupt life throughout the northern Caribbean as residents, tourists, businesses and authorities sprang into the routine -- terrifying to some, exhilarating to others -- of bracing for a storm strike.

A 78-year-old San Juan man died Tuesday, Puerto Rican police reported, when he fell off a roof as he tried to dismantle a television antenna.

The U.S. Virgin Islands declared a curfew and requested federal help, and a major oil refinery was partially shut down. Airlines canceled flights, schools and banks closed, storekeepers nailed plywood to windows and cruise lines diverted ships.

At 6 p.m. CDT, Debby was centered about 60 miles northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was moving west-northwest near 18 mph, slower than its 21 mph pace a few hours earlier, but still carrying maximum winds of 75 mph, with higher gusts. Hurricane-force winds extended 25 miles from the storm's center and tropical storm-force winds another 175 miles.

Forecasters were trying to determine if the storm would have a serious impact on the U.S. mainland.

"The center will likely be approaching us (Florida) by Friday morning. If it stays on our track, we've got Wednesday and Thursday to prepare," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 4 million people, there was relief as Debby's eye passed just north of the island. Still, officials warned heavy rains could come late in the afternoon, causing life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, and that water spouts could come ashore as isolated tornadoes.

"We're forecasting 4 to 6 inches (of rain), and they could have some locally heavier amounts up to 10 inches," Mayfield said.

The U.S. Navy abandoned exercises near the outlying island of Vieques, moving 10 ships and two submarines 300 miles south.

Hurricane warnings were posted for the north coast of the Dominican Republic, the British Turks and Caicos islands and the southeastern Bahamas, and a hurricane watch was in effect for the central Bahamas, northern Haiti and northeastern Cuba. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands maintained tropical storm warnings.

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