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8 Killed as Hurricane Pummels Puerto Rico

September 11, 1996| From Times Wire Services

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Hortense lashed Puerto Rico with punishing winds and torrents of rain Tuesday, killing eight people as it snapped trees and power lines, swelled rivers and collapsed hillsides, sweeping away homes.

Half the dead were children killed by mudslides or rising water. Police said the death toll could rise once they reach areas cut off by the storm, which passed directly over southwest Puerto Rico before dawn Tuesday. Police Supt. Pedro Toledo said at least another eight or nine people were missing.

Later Tuesday, Hortense skirted the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, which had been spared from hurricanes for nearly 20 years. The entire north coast of the Dominican Republic was under a hurricane warning, as were the Turks and Caicos islands and the southeastern Bahamas.

Tourists were ordered off beaches and evacuated from ocean-side resorts. Authorities at eastern Punta Cana airport canceled 14 flights after clocking 90-mph wind gusts.

There was a 10% chance of the hurricane striking West Palm Beach, Fla., this week, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Hortense's center was 20 miles east of Cabo Samana on the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic, moving northwest near 12 mph. Its winds were measured at 75 mph, barely hurricane strength.

Hortense cut water and electricity to most of Puerto Rico's 3.6 million people. The water supply could be contaminated by rivers overflowing into reservoirs, Scott Stripling of the National Weather Service in San Juan said.

Hundreds of cars were stranded on highways, which ran like rivers with chest-high water in San Juan, the capital. Thousands slept in shelters around the island.

A U.S. Navy helicopter and swimmer braved winds gusting to 55 mph to rescue 11 crewmen aboard the freighter Isabella, swamped off the east coast town of Humacao.

The scene at Guayama, 30 miles south of San Juan, was one of the worst. The Guamani Canal burst its banks, washed out the Santo Domingo Bridge on coastal Highway 3, and forced its way through the Borinquen neighborhood, carrying away at least 50 homes.

"There are a number of people still missing, but we don't know how many. They could be in the sea," said Jose Melendez, a resident who tried unsuccessfully to rescue others.

In the south, more than 200 homes were destroyed or severely damaged around the city of Ponce, civil defense officials and police reported.

Government officials said early estimates indicated that 75% of the plantain crop, 30% of the coffee and 50% of the island's citrus crop had been damaged.

In the continental U.S., meanwhile, traffic conditions around Washington improved Tuesday after Potomac River flood waters receded in the aftermath of Hurricane Fran.

Flooding had forced the closure of several major streets Monday, but only one remained shut. Mud and debris littered many roads in the area.

The White House announced that President Clinton will fly to North Carolina on Saturday to inspect firsthand the mauling the state took from Fran. The hurricane killed more than 30 people, 19 of them in North Carolina.

Five days after Fran struck, 350,000 customers were still without power in the state. Tens of thousands still could not use their phones. Thousands were without water and huge numbers of downed trees lay across roads and yards.

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