By Carol Bareuther
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Howling winds and torrential winds battered the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday as Hurricane Lenny, a storm capable of causing severe damage, steamed through the northeastern Caribbean with winds near 135 mph (215 kph).
Forecasters said the 55,000 residents of St. Croix, an island south of St. John, were most likely to sustain a direct hit from Lenny's pounding surf and fierce winds.
"The hurricane should enter St. Croix over the southeast shore by the Hess Refinery ... , then exit over the northeast side of the island," said Roy Ward, a weather forecaster with WVWI Radio One, on Wednesday morning.
St. Croix residents reported tropical-storm force winds and almost 4 inches (10 cm) of rain by early morning. Lenny's storm surge, a wall of water up to 8 feet (2.5 metres) above normal, tore at beach sand. Debris filled roads and power was out.
Hurricane warnings were posted for most islands along the northeastern edge of the Caribbean Sea: Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Dutch St. Maarten, French St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, St. Eustatius, Saba, Anguilla, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Antigua and Barbuda.
Warned to expect a full day of even nastier weather from a storm that has come late in the hurricane season, islanders were told to batten down and stay inside.
"We are mobilizing emergency services and organizations," Charles Turnbull, governor of the three-island U.S. territory, said. "We've been through this before and know what to do."
Dubbed "El Zurdo" or "Lefty" for its unusual west-to-east motion, the hurricane was about 70 miles (110 km) southwest of St. Croix at 9:00 a.m. AST (8:00 a.m. EST/1300 GMT), at latitude 16.9 north, longitude 65.4 west, and heading east-northeast near 13 mph (21 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
The storm had become a dangerous Category Four on forecaster's five-category Saffir-Simpson scale, capable of severe damage. Hurricane Andrew, the killer storm that hit southern Florida in 1992, was a Category Four.
The National Hurricane Center said Lenny could bring up to 15 inches (38 cm) of rain, with more in mountainous areas.
Lenny is the fifth major hurricane of the 1999 Atlantic storm season and the year's eight hurricane overall. Island residents had hoped that the six-month hurricane season would fade quietly as the official Nov. 30 end drew near.
"I'd hoped we were done with this for the year," said Ermin Olive, a Department of Health employee in St. John, waiting out the storm on Wednesday after spending Tuesday preparing.
Schools, government offices and businesses were closed in the islands expected to be hardest hit. Hundreds of shelters were open and emergency workers said they were prepared.
In St. John, thrashed by Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, the Roy L. Schneider Community Hospital was ready under a roof damaged during Marilyn and repaired only in August 1999.
"We've stocked extra food and there's an emergency team representing all agency heads that stayed overnight," Marleen Dykhuis, a hospital foodservice director, said.
The giant Hovensa LLC refinery on St. Croix, a joint venture between Amerada Hess <AHC.N> and Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA, shut down Tuesday evening.
"We'll stay down while the storm passes through, then do an inspection before we bring the equipment back into operation," Hovensa vice president Alex Moorhead said. "We have adequate storm drainage and we don't anticipate any problems."
Heavy rains and strong winds washed over southeastern Puerto Rico, raising fears of deadly mudslides and flooding, even though Lenny was expected to spare that U.S. territory's 3.8 million residents a direct hit.
There was little wind or rain in the capital San Juan, although the skies were dark and the city closed for the day.
In the southeastern coastal town of Yabucoa, heavy surf pounded beaches and high winds sent traffic signals spinning.
"Thank God it didn't hit us. But we were ready if it would have," Julio Rosado, a resident of the Cupey sector in southeast San Juan.
A hurricane warning indicates that hurricane conditions -- pounding surf, sustained winds of 74 mph (119 kph) or more, and torrential rains -- are expected within 24 hours. A watch indicates such conditions are expected within 36 hours.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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