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Disaster relief efforts mobilized in Caribbean


PUERTO RICO (September 24, 1998) -- Even as Disaster response

organization began to organize relief efforts Wednesday, Hurricane Georges

continued its march through the Caribbean toward Florida or the Gulf of


Meanwhile, a fourth tropic storm, Karl, erupted in the Atlantic.

Fortunately however, it is located east of Bermuda and is expected to

continue an eastward movement. Karl joins, Hurricanes Ivan, which is

plowing northward through the Atlantic; and Jeanne, which is following a

path slightly north of Georges -- but hundreds of miles behind.

Georges left a trail of death and destruction in its wake across the

Caribbean. The death toll is expected to reach at least 100 people, and

damages are expected to rise into the billions of dollars.

The lack of reliable overseas telephone connections to the Virgin

Islands continued to lead to conflicting reports about the extend of the

damages in that US territory.

But in St. Thomas, most businesses were open on Thursday. More damage

was reported in St. Croix where hundreds of homes lost their roofs.

According to emergency officials in Puerto Rico, as many as

20,000 people were in shelters Tuesday and Wednesday as more than 80 percent of

the island was without power or water.

President Bill Clinton has declared both Puerto Rico and the Virgin

Islands to be major disaster areas. Disaster response organizations were

working to provide aid.

"The damage has been extreme," a reporter for The Caribbean Hurricane

Page, on the Web, wrote of damages in Puerto Rico on 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


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.

Darren Irby, an American Red Cross representative that was part an

advance team to arrive on Puerto Rico, said 1,000 local volunteers are

helping the government run the shelters. Monday night 23,000 stayed in the

shelters, but that number changes as people leave to find their homes.

"We've been impressed with the resiliency of individuals and family

members here," Irby said. "People are already out cleaning up debris."

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.

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.

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.

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 among those

preparing for the storm throughout the past week. -- DNN writer, Karen

Botham contributed to this story.

Posted 5:00 a.m. - September 24, 1998

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