Hurricane Inflicts Massive Destruction in Caribbean : Weather: State of emergency is declared in Virgin Islands. Search and rescue teams are put on alert as storm continues its march toward Puerto Rico.


A monster storm named Luis, the most powerful hurricane yet in a hectic season of tempests, ripped through the Leeward and U.S. Virgin Islands in the eastern Caribbean Tuesday, causing vast destruction on its march toward Puerto Rico.

With sustained winds of 140 m.p.h., gusts to 160 and torrential rains, the storm met little resistance on such tiny islands as Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Martin, where ham radio operators reported widespread damage.

“Roofs off, extensive damage, 90% of the boats destroyed,” one man, hunkered down at midday with his short-wave radio on the island of St. Martin, said in a broadcast monitored at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Electricity and telephone service was severed throughout most of the Lesser Antilles.


On the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gov. Roy L. Schneider declared a state of emergency well before the first high winds arrived, imposing a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew to guard against looting.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Gov. Pedro Rossello went on television to urge the 3.6 million residents of the U.S. commonwealth not to panic.

“Be calm, be prepared,” he said, adding that shelter was available in schools closed for the day.

Several hotels were destroyed on Barbuda and Antigua, said Rossello, who talked by telephone with the islands’ prime minister, Lester Bird.

“The hospital there was destroyed as were many homes and buildings,” Rosello said. He said Bird asked him to send a mobile hospital to Antigua.

Airports on the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix were closed at midafternoon Tuesday and at 7 p.m. in Puerto Rico, stranding hundreds who wanted to leave. One of the last flights into San Juan was a huge military transport plane carrying communications equipment and a Federal Emergency Management Agency strike force. Disaster specialists were also sent to St. Thomas.


Search and rescue teams from several states have been put on standby to assist in the islands, if necessary, and President Clinton is being updated on the storm’s threat, said FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

In Miami, Hurricane Center forecasters tracked the storm on huge computer screens over which satellite photos showed Luis pinwheeling to the west in multicolored loops, swallowing several islands at a time.

“This is a very symmetrical and pretty storm,” said hurricane specialist Steven Lyons. “But it is a very dangerous storm.”

If Luis proceeds on a west-northwest course, the hurricane was at least four days away from affecting the U.S. East Coast, forecasters said. At the same time, they said, odds were improving that Luis would be turned away without striking the United States at all.

What scientists hoped would stop Luis from following a path similar to that taken by Hurricane Hugo, which blasted South Carolina six years ago, was a trough of low pressure that hung over the southeast states like a 1,500-mile wall Tuesday. If, as computer models predict, that trough moves out over the Atlantic, it could collide with Luis and deflect the storm to the north, Lyons explained.

Luis’ top winds actually subsided at midday Tuesday, from 140 m.p.h. to 125 m.p.h., as it crossed the islands more than 1,200 miles from Miami.


But once out over the warm waters of the Caribbean north of Puerto Rico, the slow-moving system was regaining strength and remained capable of blowing over buildings and kicking up a storm surge of up to nine feet above high tide, forecasters said.

Hurricane force winds--of 74 m.p.h. or more--extended outward 140 miles from the center and forecasters warned of rainfall totals from 10 to 12 inches.

At midafternoon Tuesday, a ham radio operator on the tiny British island of Anguilla said that a wind gust of 110 m.p.h. had been measured, and that rain was being driven horizontal to the ground.

From the island of Antigua, a radio operator reported “houses toppled, roofs missing, the eye is passing over” at about 2 p.m. EST. One report from Antigua reported a wind gust of 160 m.p.h.

With a slight wobble to the north, the wide eye of Luis--60 miles across--was expected to pass north of Puerto Rico today. Although that track would keep the strongest winds--in the hurricane’s northeast quadrant--well out to sea, Puerto Rico would still see punishing hurricane-force winds, Lyons said.

One death related to Luis was recorded in Guadeloupe, where a 29-year-old French tourist was swept out to sea while photographing waves from a jetty.


In Puerto Rico, 48 inmates escaped from a minimum-security prison on Tuesday. About a dozen who were recaptured told authorities they fled to be with their families one last time before the hurricane hit, a radio station reported.

The same station, Newstalk 1560, apologized to listeners for suspending its daily O.J. Simpson coverage to broadcast hurricane updates.