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Hurricane Rips Into Puerto Rico : 'Worst Disaster in 50 Years' Hits San Juan; 300,000 Left Homeless

September 19, 1989|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Hurricane Hugo, a relentless killer now, ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday, smashing houses and cars like plastic toys beneath its heavy boot. The storm stomped through San Juan a few hours after dawn on Monday, throwing down torrents of rain and turning the morning skies to charcoal. It left as many as 300,000 people homeless.

"That is our best estimate now," said Jaime B. Fuster, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Washington. "It has devastated all our poor areas, one township after the other--the worst disaster in 50 years."

The death toll of Hugo's morbid work of Monday is yet uncounted, though Fuster said at least four people are known dead; at least 10 others died Sunday from the storm's earlier havoc elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Concrete Falls From Buildings

The wind was a crazy howl at more than 100 m.p.h. Waves leaped the walls in the fashionable Condado Beach district. Swirling water gouged its own path through the streets. Chunks of concrete plunged from tall buildings.

The storm's center--an eye nearly 30 miles wide--passed only miles north of the capital city, loosing the full wrath of Hugo's winds and rain. Furious gales pinwheeled for 150 miles in every direction. Power went out and the phones went down.

Late Monday night, the center of the hurricane was about 125 miles northwest of San Juan, according to the National Weather Service.

It is the worst hurricane to hit the Caribbean in a decade.

Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said: "About two days from now, three days from now, it'll be out in the Bahamas, and about Wednesday, we'll be making decisions as to whether or not we need any (hurricane) watches or warnings for anywhere along the U.S. coast."

Sheets said forecasting models indicate the hurricane will travel in a northwestern direction for several hours and then "our best (hurricane computer projection) models indicate that it will turn back" toward the U.S. mainland.

Information is very slow to emerge from any of the battered islands. There has been some television footage of the destruction, but most reports arrive with crackly voices over ham radios.

One amateur operator on board a boat off the Puerto Rican coast described the storm's menacing power, then the eerie calm of the eye at 6 a.m. EDT:

"We were just hanging on for all we can when the eye hit us . . . . It became very quiet. No wind. No rain and water rising rapidly. It is ungodly quiet now."

In the pre-dawn, Hugo had raked its way through the fashionable vacation getaways of St. Croix and St. Thomas with the awesome kinetic fury of 140-m.p.h. winds. Trees were plucked out of the ground like candles off a cake.

"St. Croix appears to be the hardest hit of the U.S. Virgin Islands," said forecaster Miles Lawrence of the hurricane center; one ham radio operator in St. Croix said roofs were torn off 75% of the homes.

"The visibility is nil," sailor Margaret Utman told a reporter via ship-to-shore radio as the storm pelted. "All of the boats around me have dragged anchor and most of the people have abandoned ship. We are not safe, but we're OK."

Message From Guard Unit

In Washington, spokesman Bill McAda said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had received a brief message from an Air National Guard unit in St. Croix telling of devastation.

The report from the 285th Combat Communications Flight bluntly said: "Initial assessment after Hurricane Hugo: We need help. St. Croix devastated by Hugo. Ninety percent of buildings damaged, 70 destroyed. No power. No phones. No outside (communications)."

In St. Thomas, another radio operator reported "70 to 80% destruction" across the island. The hurricane had been a monster, and it was only then to begin its devastating reach for Puerto Rico, population 3.3 million.

A few small coastal Puerto Rican islands stood in its path. Vieques and Culebra barely slowed the tempest. It crossed onto the main island around Luqillo, on the northeast tip, not far from the U.S. naval base at Roosevelt Roads.

The hurricane traipsed amid the mountains, its speed slowing somewhat, though not nearly enough to spare San Juan, which quickly came into its path.

50 Planes Destroyed

Cars were overturned. Rooftops were stripped. At Luis Munoz International Airport, some 50 airplanes were destroyed. Boats were tossed from the water in marinas, piling one on top of the other.

Glass sprayed from hotel windows, said Heriberto Acevedo, the island's civil defense director. The winds ripped air conditioning units from the sides of condominiums. Few streets were passable amid felled trees and debris.

Shanties were flattened, and their roofs of corrugated metal spun in the gusts like huge blades. Entire neighborhoods were left in a heap.

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