By Carol Bareuther
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Deadly Hurricane Lenny on Friday swept its powerful winds and torrential rains through the fragile Leeward Islands in the northeastern Caribbean.
The unusual west-to-east moving storm left a path of death and destruction in the region, churning up waves that smashed boats, washed away roads, scattered debris, tore at hotels and slid coastal homes into the water. Its winds weakened, while it dumped 10 to 15 inches of rain (25 cm to 38 cm), triggering flooding and mudslides in mountainous areas.
At 02.00 a.m. AST (01.00 EST/0600 GMT), Lenny's center was located over St Barthelemey, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The hurricane was expected to resume a slow northeastward motion with its maximum sustained winds at 110 mph (176 km) later in the day.
"Some additional weakening is forecast during the next 24 hours but Lenny will remain a dangerous hurricane as it moves slowly through the islands of the northeast Caribbean," the center said in its latest report.
One man died on St. Maarten and another was missing on St. Kitts. A man died in San Juan when he fell off a ladder while securing his television antenna and two fishermen were reported drowned as far south as Colombia's coast.
The U.S. Coast Guard searched for two men who abandoned their battered 42-foot (12.7-meter) sailboat in a life raft in the area where the hurricane was.
HURRICANE WARNINGS POSTED
Hurricane warnings were in effect for the northeast Caribbean islands of Dutch St. Maarten, French St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, Anguilla, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, and Antigua and Barbuda.
Lenny's center was located at latitude 18.0 north and longitude 62.9 west, forecasters said.
Severe damage was reported in St. Maarten, where the storm sat for most of Thursday.
Lenny weakened on Thursday to a strong Category Two on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, making it a moderate hurricane capable of damaging roofs, mobile homes and trees and flooding coastlines with storm surges up to eight feet (2.4 meters).
It had bordered on being a potentially catastrophic Category Five hurricane on Wednesday when it smacked directly into St. Croix, one of three islands that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands. Gov. Charles Turnbull said the other two islands, St. Thomas and St. Johns, were "in relatively good shape."
Richard Doumeng, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association, said hotels on the two islands fared well and would reopen before next week's Thanksgiving holiday.
Virgin Islands officials said an earlier report that four people had died on St. Croix proved unfounded. Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James said damage on the south side of St. Croix was "considerable," with boats littering the shore, utility poles felled, and a ballpark destroyed.
OIL REFINERY SPARED
Alexander Moorhead of the giant HOVENSA refinery on St. Croix reported that damage was minimal. "We're taking steps to restart as soon as possible," he said. HOVENSA is a joint venture of U.S.-based Amerada Hess Corp. and the Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company of Venezuela.
On St. Maarten, a man died when his car sank into a patch of rain-soaked ground and flipped over. High seas tossed giant shipping containers, with some floating up on shore.
Telephones and power went out on Saba, St. Maarten and St. Eustatius. The storm forced Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to postpone a visit to those islands.
In Grenada, roaring waves washed rows of homes into the sea at Charleston Harbour and in the tiny fishing town of Gouyave.
Scores of people were left homeless in St. Lucia's tourism capital, Soufriere, as the 20-foot (six-metre) surf washed away some 40 houses. Telephone booths floated away and hotels, restaurants and jetties were badly damaged on its waterfront.
"This area has been totally wiped out and there is nothing that can be used or salvaged," Disaster Preparedness official Boswell Lamontagne told the Caribbean News Agency (CANA).
On St. Kitts, a crew member from a cargo vessel that ran aground was reported missing in the raging seas.
Lenny struck very late in the six-month Atlantic hurricane season, which officially ends on Nov. 30. It is the fifth major hurricane of the season and the eighth hurricane overall.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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