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8 Killed as Hurricane Pummels Puerto Rico

Disaster: Four victims are children. Storm dumps 18 inches of rain, leaves most of island's 3.6 million residents without water and power.

September 11, 1996| From Associated Press

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.

Half the dead were children, including an 8-year-old girl swept from her father's arms as her 13-year-old sister drowned. Despite valiant rescue attempts across the island, police said the death toll could rise once they reach areas cut off when the hurricane passed over southwest Puerto Rico before dawn Tuesday.

Hortense later made its second direct hit of the day, striking the northeast tip of the Dominican Republic.

Tourists there were ordered off beaches and evacuated from ocean resorts. Authorities at eastern Punta Cana airport canceled 14 flights after clocking 90-mph wind gusts around noon, but little damage was reported in the Dominican Republic other than downed trees and telephone poles.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Hortense was headed toward the Dominican Republic's northern peninsula, threatening thousands of tourists with its 75-mph winds.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the Turks and Caicos islands and the Bahamas. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said it was too soon to predict whether the storm would strike the U.S. mainland.

The hurricane brought nearly 18 inches of rain to Puerto Rico, where the victims included a 2-year-old boy and a 3-year-old boy killed in mudslides and the two sisters carried away by flood water.

Residents spoke of watching the girls' father trying to save the younger child, only to have the surging water drag her from his hands.

The sisters' bodies were found under a bridge. Four other family members were missing.

Three adults were also confirmed drowned, and a woman was found dead--presumably of a heart attack--in her car in a west-central farming town of Lares.

The hurricane 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.

The scene at Guayama, 30 miles south of San Juan, was among the worst.

The Guamani Canal, part of an old sugar cane mill network, 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.

Jose Melendez, 36, said he and other men tied themselves together with belts and ropes to try to save five people. But they had to abandon their efforts as the swollen river rose ever higher, as did civil defense workers later.

"There are a number of people still missing but we don't know how many. They could be in the sea," Melendez said.

Three families took refuge in a single, one-story concrete home near Guayama, only to be trapped by flash flooding for nine hours.

When rescuers finally reached the home, they found four children and a man huddled on the top of a closet. Five other adults and a child were missing.

Spectators on a bank, who had been weeping and praying for their safety, clapped as rescuers brought a baby safely from the home.

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

Meanwhile, five days after Hurricane Fran struck the Carolinas, 350,000 residents were still without power and it may be a week before everybody is back on line. Tens of thousands still could not use their phones. Thousands were without water, since many homes have wells with electric pumps. And huge numbers of downed trees still lay across roads and yards.

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