Puerto Rico (The United States of America)

Hortense tears into Puerto Rico

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PONCE, Puerto Rico Hurricane Hortense slammed into Puerto Rico early Tuesday with wind-whipped torrents of rain, downing trees, stirring up 12-foot seas and leaving thousands without power.

Forecasters called Hortense, the eighth storm and fifth hurricane of the Atlantic season, extremely volatile. It comes on the heels of Hurricane Fran, which skirted the Caribbean before slamming into the eastern United States late last week, killing more than two dozen people.

The National Weather Service reported that Hortense packing winds of 80 mph with higher gusts struck land at Guanica, a charming seaside resort 20 miles southwest of Ponce in southwest Puerto Rico.

Its a dangerous situation, Israel Matos, director of the San Juan bureau of the U.S. National Weather Service, warned late Monday. He said the hurricane could remain over the island for up to two hours.

Not only the storm surges in the coastal areas (menace), but people inland can expect possible tornadoes, mudslides, landslides as well as life-threatening flash floods, meteorologist James Lewis Free warned from the National Hurricane Center near Miami.

A hurricane warning was posted for Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republics southern coast. A tropical storm warning was in effect for the U.S. and British Virgin islands.

Forecasters said the hurricane was expected to be 300 miles east of Palm Beach, Fla., by Thursday morning, but it was not yet known how Floridas eastern coast would be affected.

Earlier Monday, islanders boarded up windows, lined up to buy water, then rushed to the beaches to watch the waters rise, the winds churn the seas and surfers glory in the challenge.

Hundreds of tourist yachts, sailboats, house boats and government vessels sought shelter in mangrove swamps in the bays of southwestern Puerto Rico.

A giant tree trunk snapped under the force of the approaching hurricane, crushing eight cars on Hortense Street in San Juan, the capital.

Gov. Pedro Rossello, warning the whole island would be affected, urged people in low-lying areas to evacuate. As of early Tuesday, only 5,000 of Puerto Ricos 3.6 million residents had sought refuge in government-run shelters, according to Jose Bravo, the Caribbean director for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Power was knocked out late Monday for 226,000 of the islands 1.1 million consumers.

At St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, waves as tall as a house crashed over the 15-foot pier where cruise ships anchor at Frederiksted on Monday. Winds howled and gusted near 70 mph, driving sheets of rain that covered roads with 4 feet of water and flooded homes.

These storms are crazy. I pray it doesnt veer toward us, Jose Escobar said, boarding up the window of the store where he works in Ponce. He hurried to finish so he could wait out the storm at home with his wife and five children.

Hortense grew to hurricane strength Monday and enlarged to a 470-mile-wide mass, with sustained winds near 80 mph. It changed direction midday, stalling south of St. Croix then drifting northwest toward Puerto Rico.

=A9 1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.