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

Times Staff Writer

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.

Kernan Turner, Caribbean bureau chief for the Associated Press, reported: "It was raining sideways. The rain literally went sideways. It was very dangerous looking out a window because something could come rushing by. You always saw things in the air . . . metal missiles and debris just flying through the air."

Looters took advantage of collapsed storefronts, filling their arms with the bounty of Hugo's misdeeds. The National Guard was placed on special alert to curtail the thefts. Even the main Post Office was under guard.

Reports were few from the island's interior. Mudslides are a grave concern in the mountain gorges. They are a common danger in Puerto Rico even during storms with barely a third the potency of Hugo.

The losses in property will be horrible, so much more because the island--a U.S. commonwealth--is so poor. Some 400,000 people collect food stamps. Nearly two-thirds live beneath the federal poverty line.

Late Monday, Puerto Rico Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon said he will "ask President Bush to declare the island a disaster area."

Fuster, the residential commissioner, added: "Who knows how bad this will be when we finally know the full picture. There is so much physical damage.

"Without civil defense efforts things would be even worse. More than 200,000 people were evacuated (Sunday night). Today they are homeless; but they are alive."

He said almost all of the island's agriculture had been wiped out, including "fruits such as bananas intended for the European market and coffee which was ready to harvest."

Indeed, there had been plenty of warning. The hurricane first struck on Sunday. The targets were the bony islands in the Leeward chain. Five people were reported dead on Guadeloupe while at least four were killed on Montserrat.

Cleanup efforts Monday on the Caribbean islands seemed overwhelming. Monique Quesaba of the U.S. consular office in nearby Martinique said: "In Guadeloupe, 12,000 people are left homeless, about 100 injured . . . . "

Ernest Moutoussamy, the mayor of St. Francois, a tiny village on Guadeloupe's eastern shore, said: "Aside from a few houses, almost all the rest were destroyed."

Reuters News Agency reported that one of the hardest hit islands was Montserrat, a tiny British colony. The Caribbean News Agency (CANA) monitored from Barbados, quoted radio operators as saying that 99% of the island's 12,000 residents were left homeless.

The British frigate Alacrity was reported to be steaming to the island with emergency supplies.

The Associated Press reported that the French Defense Ministry assigned 3,000 soldiers, two military transport aircraft and four cargo vessels to assist in restoring communications and emergency services to Guadeloupe.

And now Hugo advances. From the lushness of Puerto Rico, it then lumbered on toward the northern coast of the Dominican Republic at 9 m.p.h.

In Santa Domingo, civil defense director Eugenio Cabral said at least 1,000 families had been moved into shelters. It remains a Category 4 hurricane, packing winds of 125 m.p.h. Its course is west by northwest--and that would take it to the islands in the Turk and Caicos chain and then the Bahamas.

And big as it is, it may grow bigger. Over open water, the hurricane will likely fortify itself from the blend of heat and warm moisture. Forecasters expect the storm to reach the Bahamas by Wednesday or Thursday.

"It may hit with the same 140-m.p.h. winds that it had when it hit the Virgin Islands, and if it does, you'll see the same kind of devastation there," said Sheets of the hurricane center.

And then it will loom near the U.S. coastline, threatening Florida or other shorelines. Miles Lawrence of the hurricane center said: "We don't really see anything that could keep it away, but that is still several days off."

In Miami, civil defense officials on Monday were already urging residents to prepare for the worst. People were listening to television for hourly updates. Hugo's approach was already an ominous fact of life.

And there was one more thing to watch on the weather reports. Behind Hugo another tropical storm has been born off Africa.

It is heading this way. Iris is the name.

Researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to the reporting of this story.

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