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Disaster relief efforts mobilized in Caribbean

BY JIM SKILLINGTON | PUERTO RICO | September 23, 1998

PUERTO RICO (September 23, 1998) -- Disaster response organization began to

mobilize relief efforts Tuesday as Hurricane Georges swept out of Puerto

Rico on its devastating march west through the Caribbean.

Just a minimal hurricane at 75 mph as it moved out to the Windward

Passage Wednesday morning, it caused severe damage and is reported to have

claimed 12 lives in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. At least 21 people

across the Caribbean have now died as a result of the hurricane.

Forecasters said Georges is expected to strengthen again over open waters.

The future track of the hurricane is not certain, however, hurricane

watches have been posted for southern Florida. The storm could reach the

U.S. mainland

as early as Thursday.

Anticipating the storm, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles has declared a state

of emergency in central and southern Florida and ordered mandatory

evacuations for at least 100,000 people in the Florida Keys.

According to emergency officials in Puerto Rico, 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 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 150 mph. It was the worst storm to hit the U.S. commonwealth

since Hurricane Hortense in 1996.

The hurricane strengthened still more to 120 mph as it hit the Dominican

Republic and Haiti Tuesday afternoon and evening. "In a storm of this

magnitude, it is hard to even comprehend how catastrophic this could be,"

said a spokesperson at the national palace in Haiti.

It is the worst hurricane to hit the two countries since 1979.

Due to problems with overseas telephone connections, 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, maintained largely 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.

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 Hurricane Jeanne, located in the far eastern

Atlantic.

On Wednesday of Tropical Storm Ivan was continuing to move north in the

Atlantic and is not expected to be a threat to

landfall.

Posted 10:00 a.m. - September 23, 1998


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