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Hurricane Lenny batters Caribbean

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Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
Hurricane Lenny battered the fragile islands of the northeast Caribbean early Thursday with ferocious 150-mph winds and monstrous waves that flung boats ashore, washed coastal homes into the sea and flooded streets. Throughout, the early morning, the storm concentrated most of its fury on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Lenny made a direct hit on the tiny island, cutting power and telephone service to many homes, ripping up trees and unleashing a steady rain that flooded large areas. The late-season storm threatened to extend its path of destruction as it loomed off a string of Dutch and British Caribbean islands later Thursday morning.

A Puerto Rican resident watches Lenny's floodwaters creep up on his house. Photo courtesy of the BBC ''It snuck up on us so fast. ... We prepared for a (Category) One or Two,'' John Stout, a professor at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix, told Reuters. But 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 above normal.

Lenny's rains flooded some parts of St. Croix in 8 feet of water and blew mountains of sand onto roads, making them impassable. Winds shattered the windows at a St. Croix school that served as a shelter, forcing more than 110 people inside to flee to another shelter. Waves smashed over a 8-foot sea wall at Frederiksted, the second-largest town on the island, tearing away the wooden pier that was the fish market and a small part of the concrete pier where cruise ships dock. In Christiansted, St. Croix's main town, the boardwalk was submerged, and winds tore part of the roof off the newly renovated King Christian Hotel.

''We're taking a beating,'' a caller in the St. Croix port town of Frederiksted told WVWI Radio One. The governors of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico asked President Clinton to declare states of emergency for the two U.S. territories.

Lenny's stength was felt throughout the eastern Caribbean. In Grenada, roaring waves washed rows of homes into the sea at Charleston Harbour and in the tiny fishing town of Gouyave, the Caribbean News Agency [Cana] reported. Scores of people were left homeless in St. Lucia when 20 foot waves washed away their houses. Throughout the Leeward Islands, battering waves swept away homes, and torrential rains caused widespread flooding. At least two people were missing after Lenny passed over the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and French and Dutch territories located.

Puerto Rico's 3.8 million residents were spared the brunt of the storm Wednesday when it failed to make a direct hit there, but heavy rains flooded the southeastern part of the island, raising fears of deadly mudslides. The storm also knocked out power for 80,000 people and left 100,000 without drinking water. More than 4,700 people were in shelters Wednesday.
Lenny is the fifth major hurricane of the 1999 Atlantic storm season and the year's eighth hurricane overall. The late-season storm has killed at least four people from Colombia to Dutch St. Maarten in the northeast Caribbean. On Tuesday, two fishermen drowned off Colombia's Caribbean peninsula, and rains destroyed half of a coastal village, leaving 540 people homeless.

Lenny's strong winds have wreaked havoc throughout the eastern Caribbean. Photo courtesy of the BBC

One man died in the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, after he fell off a ladder while trying to board up windows. A man in St. Maarten died Wednesday when the garden wall of his hillside home collapsed on him. In St. Croix, a tourist watching the rising waves from the beach was swept up in them and carried away. He clung to a rock for more than an hour before local divers rescued him.

The hurricane was unlikely to strike the mainland United States, according to forecasters, who have cautioned, however, that Lenny still could bring heavy surf capable of eroding beaches in Florida.

Hurricane Lenny is a late-season storm with a seemingly backward trajectory from west to east that surprised even seasoned forecasters. The eye of the storm was expected to pass close to the Dutch territories of St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, Saba and the British island of Anguilla Thursday.

Even before the hurricane arrived, storm surges that whipped up 12-foot waves stripped sand from Anguilla's famous beaches, and nearly 100 tourists were forced to evacuate from a flooded hotel. The beaches, which attract tourists who provide the British island's biggest source of revenue, already had been damaged by Hurricane Jose last month.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency sent medical teams to the U.S. Virgin Islands ahead of the storm. The agency's director, James Lee Witt, told reporters that damage assessors would fly in today. He said that while the hurricane damaged roofs, including that of the national armory, he did not expect widespread damage because FEMA had helped the government institute new hurricane building codes after Hurricane Marilyn devastated the islands in 1995. The territory has a $1 billion debt and still owes $8 million for federal disaster loans from Hurricane Marilyn and Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

As Lenny churned in the Caribbean, 20 foot waves washed away countless coastal homes. Photo courtesy of the BBC Hurricane warnings remained in effect for most islands on the northeastern edge of the Caribbean Sea: part of 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.

Dubbed ''El Zurdo'' or ''Lefty'' for its unusual west-to-east path, the storm was drifting 35 miles west-southwest of St. Maarten at 4 a.m. EST, at latitude 17.8 north, longitude 63.6 west, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. Forecasters said Lenny could bring more than 15 inches of rain.

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DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.