CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Hurricane Lenny battered the fragile islands of the northeast Caribbean early on Thursday with ferocious winds near 145 mph (230 kph) and monstrous waves that smashed fishing fleets and washed coastal homes into the sea.
Lenny scored a direct hit on St. Croix, one of three isles that make up the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many of St. Croix's 55,000 residents were caught off guard Wednesday by the storm's rapid strengthening, said John Stout, a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix.
"It snuck up on us so fast. ... We prepared for a (Category) One or Two," Stout said.
Lenny had strengthened Wednesday into a strong Category Four hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. It was close to being a Category Five -- a potentially catastrophic storm capable of ripping off roofs, destroying small buildings and mobile homes and raising tides to 18 feet (5.4 meters) above normal.
A wall of water 8 feet (2.5 metres) high flooded parts of St. Croix and clogged roads with sand. Winds shattered the windows at a St. Croix school that served as a shelter, forcing more than 110 people housed there to flee to another shelter.
"We're taking a beating," a caller in the St. Croix port town of Frederiksted told WVWI Radio One.
WINDS TEAR AT ISLANDS
Lenny's shifting winds tore at the island. Stout said the storm reminded him of the powerful Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when "my coconuts were blowing one way and my bananas another."
The governors of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico asked U.S. President Bill Clinton to declare states of emergency for the two U.S. territories.
The giant Hovensa LLC refinery on St. Croix, a joint venture between Amerada Hess and Venezuela's state-owned PDVSA, shut down Tuesday.
Puerto Rico's 3.8 million residents were spared the brunt of the storm but heavy rains flooded the southeastern part of the island, raising fears of deadly mudslides.
More than 4,700 people were in shelters Wednesday, 80,000 were without electricity and 100,000 lacked safe drinking water, Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello said.
Lenny is the fifth major hurricane of the 1999 Atlantic storm season and the year's eighth hurricane overall.
NORTHEAST CARIBBEAN HIT HARD
Throughout the northeastern Caribbean, boats were ripped from their moorings and massive swells crashed over sea walls.
A Dominican banana boat that ferried produce among the islands ran aground in Nevis and a small cargo ship capsized in a nearby harbor.
"The seas are just berserk," a Nevis resident said.
In Grenada, roaring waves washed rows of homes into the sea at Charleston Harbor and in the tiny fishing town of Gouyave, the Caribbean News Agency (CANA) said. The crashing surf smashed a restaurant and the foundation of a multimillion dollar fisheries complex under construction in St. Georges, Grenada.
cores of people were left homeless in St. Lucia as the 20-foot (six-metre) surf washed away their houses.
"People wept openly in the streets as they witnessed their homes being swept away by the high seas," Red Cross official Hubert Pierre told CANA.
In Montserrat, rescuers carried three people to safety through the pounding surf after a huge wave swamped the small sailboats where they had planned to ride out the storm.
The storm forced Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands to postpone a visit to several Dutch Caribbean islands.
Hurricane warnings remained in effect for most islands on the northeastern edge of the Caribbean Sea: 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.
Dubbed "El Zurdo" or "Lefty" for its unusual west-to-east path, the storm was drifting 50 miles (85 km) west-southwest of St. Maarten at 2 a.m. EST (0700 GMT), at latitude 17.7 north, longitude 63.8 west, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
Forecasters said Lenny could bring more than 15 inches (38 cm) of rain.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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