Hurricane Bertha Batters Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico

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After battering St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a strengthening Hurricane Bertha rolled along just off the north coast of Puerto Rico Monday afternoon, lashing the capital city of San Juan with punishing winds, rain and seas of 6 feet or more before moving on toward the Bahamas.

A Venezuelan ship carrying 42 people was reported in trouble and drifting off the Puerto Rican coast in sustained winds of 85 mph, the Coast Guard said.

One surfer drowned in the U.S. Virgin Islands and another was missing off Puerto Rico. Several buildings, including a school, were blown down as the storm ripped through St. Thomas, still not fully recovered from Hurricane Marilyn last September.

"We're doing well," said Virgin Islands Gov. Roy L. Schneider at midday Monday. He said that many roofs had been torn off houses, that at least 20 boats had been blown ashore in the capital of Charlotte Amalie and that power had been shut off as a safety precaution. But, Schneider added, no injuries or looting had been reported.

Earlier Monday, Evelyn McLaughlin, chief executive officer of the island's government-run hospital, said that 125 patients housed there were safe. "We're ready," she said. "We have food and water, and the backup generator is running."

Bertha, the second tropical storm of 1996, became the season's first hurricane late Sunday when a reconnaissance plane found winds in excess of 75 mph as the system approached St. Martin, Saba and other islands in the Lesser Antilles. Minor damage was reported on St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands of Tortola and Virgin Gorda.

Although Bertha is a minimal, Category 1 hurricane, a wind gust of 103 mph was recorded when the eye of the storm passed over St. Thomas on Monday afternoon. Top sustained winds late Monday were reported at 90 mph.

Emergency shelters were opened Sunday throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands and farther east in the Leeward Islands, also hard hit last hurricane season by as many as four tropical storms.

"It's blowing like a nor'easter coming through," said Ted Baker, a Realtor who lives by the beach in San Juan, speaking by telephone late Monday afternoon.

All flights from Miami International Airport to Puerto Rico and other islands in the eastern Caribbean were canceled early Monday, while cruise lines made plans to reroute ships. The Wednesday launch of a Delta 2 rocket, carrying a military navigational satellite, was postponed indefinitely.

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At Miami's National Hurricane Center, forecaster Steve Lyons said that the storm is likely to continue on a northwest track, skirting the north shore of the Dominican Republic today and moving into the southern Bahamas by early Wednesday.

Hurricane watches then could be posted for Florida or other areas of the southeastern United States, Lyons said. Should Hurricane Bertha intensify even slightly while continuing toward south Florida, volunteer evacuations of coastal areas could begin as early as Wednesday, officials said.

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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