Disaster relief efforts mobilized in Caribbean

BY JIM SKILLINGTON | Puerto Rico | September 22, 1998


After ravaging Puerto Rico (PR) Monday night, on Tuesday it slammed into the Dominican Republic.

Forecasters said it could reach the U.S. mainland as early as Thursday and visitors to the Florida Keys were

being encouraged to leave Tuesday.

According to emergency officials in Puerto Rico, three people were killed in a landslide and two others died

of heart attacks. As many as 20,000 people were in shelters Tuesday afternoon as more than 75 percent of

the island was without power and many did not have water.

President Bill Clinton has declared both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to be major disaster areas.

Disaster response organizations including Church World Service, Lutheran Disaster Response and the

American Red Cross were working to provide aid.

The US Virgin islands apparently escaped the kind of damage the storm inflicted on Puerto Rico according

to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Overseas telephone service, out since Monday, was

expected to be restored there on Wednesday.

"The situation is critical," Mayor Anibal Melendez of the eastern PR resort town of Fajardo said Monday

morning. "It's been a disaster here," Amalio Loiz, head of civil defense in the town of Umacao, told the

BBC.

"The damage has been extreme," a reporter for The Caribbean Hurricane Page, on the Web, wrote

Tuesday. "I'm afraid that the results are of really historic proportions," he added.

Gil Furst, director of Lutheran Disaster Response said Monday night that he had spoken with Bishop

Franciso Sosa (ELCA Caribbean Synod), who reported "there are a lot of houses with substantial damage

and trees lost." Furst said he planned to travel to the Caribbean as soon as it was possible.

Church World Service (CWS) is developing a multi-track response to the disaster, including sending

material relief, such as blankets and Gifts of the Heart kits. In addition, CWS plans to send Arizona-based

Terrance and Tina Wesbrock of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and CWS disaster resource

consultants, to work with Federal Emergency Management in Puerto Rico to organize long-term recovery

programs in affected communities.

After weakening considerably Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, Hurricane Georges gathered

strength Monday afternoon before slamming into Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 115 mph and gusts

approaching 175 mph.

Georges is one of just three hurricanes this century to strike Puerto Rico with winds of more than 115 mph.

Only Hugo, in 1989, and San Felipe in 1928 have had higher winds. Forecasters said the storm could take

up to six hours to travel across the island.

Initial damage reports from the eastern Caribbean islands were slow in coming although significant

structural damages were reported on the island of Saba where the Hurricane Center reported unofficial

wind gusts of 175 mph and in Antigua where two deaths were reported.

In St. Kitts and Nevis, three deaths were reported and as many as 70 percent of the homes were damaged.

Internet reports were being filed regularly on the Caribbean hurricane Page, created earlier this year as a

hobby by a Maryland man. As long as power and telephone lines are available, eyewitnesses throughout

the region have provided personal reports of what they've seen or heard.

So many people were attempting to find news about Georges, that the site nearly had to be closed on

Sunday.

Monday afternoon, a correspondent wrote from Puerto Rico that he was able to hear "transformers

blowing up in the distance and the high voltage cables that pass near the river are making a loud bang as

they collide with one another."

Prior to Georges arrival on Monday, Father Jose Antonio Oquendo-Pabsn, a Catholic priest on St. Thomas

in the U.S. Virgin Islands. noted that he had cancelled early morning mass.

As the winds began to cause damage to nearby trees, he told readers of the Website, "Some gusts now

exceed 65 mph winds, enough to rip the small papaya fruit from the trees in the church gardens.

"The relative dryness of the wind makes me fear for trees, grass and plants... Some might say 'you'd do

better to fear for human lives.' Yes, but our life here is surrounded by God's beautiful creation. . ."

Like many churches across the Caribbean, parishioners at Fr. Oquendo-Pabsn's church spent Sunday

checking on shut-ins and inviting those who were alone to stay with others.

On Monday evening, there had been few reports from the U.S. Virgin islands. The eye of Georges went

right over St. Croix where seas were reported at 20-feet and part of the boardwalk had been destroyed.

In the most eastern islands, Sunday services were shortened in some places so that churches could be used

as shelters.

A volunteer at a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Antigua described extensive work on Sunday of local

members to prepare the facility to become a shelter. "We expect a full house tonight," she said.

Hurricane Hugo, which hit the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Carolinas in 1989, still has the distinction

of being the second most devastating hurricane to hit the U.S.

Residents of the islands of Guadeloupe and St. John's began to feel the fury of Hurricane Georges Sunday

evening.

According to eyewitness accounts, reported via the Internet, the town of Capesterre on Guadeloupe's

southeast coast, was hit by a 12-foot wave, that swept-up several motorists who had to be rescued.

"The waves are HUGE, no white caps, but when they crash on the coast we can feel and hear it," a resident

who lives nearby wrote at 6 p.m. Sunday.

Waves as high as 20-feet are expected to hit the coast of islands near the eye of the "extremely dangerous"

storm that is being compared to the destructive 1989 Hurricane Hugo.

While forecasters mapped the storm's progress, disaster response organizations were implementing

preparation plans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent disaster response personnel

to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Air travel and ferries throughout the region were cancelled and most of the cruise ships had left their ports

to get out of the way of the potentially devastating hurricane. American Airlines said Tuesday it hoped to

be able to resume scheduled service to PR on Wednesday.

Emergency shelters were prepared for opening and faith-based food and supply closets were re-stocked.

Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities in both the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have been

preparing for the storm throughout the past week.

As Hurricane Georges marched across the eastern Caribbean Monday, blowing off roofs and uprooting

trees, the National Hurricane Center announced a the formation of Tropical Storm Jeanne, located about

300 miles SE of the Cape Verde Islands.

Jeanne is just the third tropical storm to form east of the islands this century.

On Sunday of Tropical Storm Ivan was reported approximately 600 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands,

but it is not expected to be a threat to landfall.


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More links on Disaster Relief

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