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Massive hurricane slams Caribbean

BY SUSAN KIM | Jamaica | November 18, 1999

As gale-force winds finally subsided in the Caribbean, response officials began damage assessments while trying to meet

emergency needs of people displaced or injured by the storm. The massive Hurricane Lenny slammed through the Caribbean

Wednesday with up to 15 inches of rain, battering seas, and winds of nearly 150 mph.

The storm flooded hundreds of homes in the U.S. Virgin Islands, smashed boats and piers, washed away roads, and caused

dangerous mudslides in Puerto Rico and as far away as Colombia, where half a coastal village was washed away, leaving some

600 people homeless.

Grenada also suffered the brunt of Lenny's force, with roaring waves smashing homes and boats.

Forecasters also said that Hurricane Lenny's influence will be felt as far away as Florida, which could receive heavy surf that

could cause beach erosion.

Residents of hard-hit St. Croix - largely experienced in hurricane preparation and response -- were caught off guard by Lenny's

rapid strengthening and by the storm's unusual west-to-east motion, which confounded even seasoned forecasters. Four deaths

have been blamed on the storm.

When the storm scored a direct hit on the island of St. Croix, it raised tides 18 feet above normal.

St. Croix remained without power and water on Thursday, and airports were closed. "It's still too early to tell (the extent of

damages) right now," said Joann Hale, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator who plans to travel to the

hardest-hit areas to help coordinate a response.

But early assessments indicate that there is more flood damage than wind damage, in comparison to the highly destructive

winds of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

"St. Croix has a well-practiced and very well organized VOAD (Voluntary Agencies Active in Disaster)," said Ken Curtin from

the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In addition, the U.S. Virgin Islands instituted new building codes after Hurricane Marilyn devastated the islands in 1995. The

territory still owes $8 million for federal disaster loans from Hurricanes Marilyn and Hugo.

Some 300 people in St. Croix remain in shelters, and many were forced to move in the middle of the storm when some shelters

had windows shattered by the wind. The American Red Cross is trying to meet people's emergency needs such as food, water,

and shelter.

Though Puerto Rico escaped a direct hit, there was significant flooding there, said Hale. "More than 300 homes were damaged in

southern and eastern Puerto Rico," she said. Nearly 100,000 people there were without water and electricity.

Rev. Francisco Vecezquez-Rodriguez, a Presbyterian pastor in Puerto Rico who helped lead interfaith recovery efforts in the

wake of Hurricane Georges, said that an interfaith coalition will meet within the next 48 hours to discuss a response there.

"All of our volunteers were very enthusiastic about starting to help," he said. "I just now look forward to the end of this

hurricane season."

Hurricane Lenny was a Category 4 storm -- nearly the highest Category 5 -- when it raked the Caribbean.

Forecasters said the hurricane brought up to 15 inches of rain in the hardest hit areas, and as Lenny headed toward the

northeastern, the storm brought equal amounts.

Though response groups in the Caribbean and in the U.S. have an already-established coalition in the Virgin Islands, some

U.S.-based staff will travel to St. Croix to assist with response. The largest local partners include Lutheran Social Services,

Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and Catholic Charities, though many other groups, including CWS, are planning a

response of some kind.

Before Hurricane Lenny, the Virgin Islands had escaped a direct hit by hurricanes this season.

Hurricane Lenny dumped torrential rain on Jamaica and the Cayman Islands earlier this week.

It is the 12th named storm of the Atlantic season and this year's eight hurricane.

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