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Hurricane Hortense Roils the Seas, Downs Trees in Puerto Rico

September 10, 1996

PONCE, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Threatening a direct hit early Tuesday, Hurricane Hortense bullied Puerto Rico with wind-whipped torrents of rain, flattening cars with downed trees and leaving thousands without power.

Forecasters called Hortense, the eighth storm and fifth hurricane of the Atlantic season, volatile and dangerous. It comes on the heels of Hurricane Fran, which skirted the Caribbean before slamming into the eastern United States late last week, killing more than two dozen people.

``It’s a dangerous situation,″ Israel Matos, director of the San Juan bureau of the U.S. National Weather Service, warned at a news conference late Monday.

A hurricane warning was posted for Puerto Rico and a hurricane watch was on for the Dominican Republic’s south coast. Forecasters said there was a 6 percent chance the coast of Florida could feel the effects of Hortense by Thursday morning.

Matos said the hurricane had taken a northerly twist and threatened to hit land just east of Ponce, a southern city renowned for its colonial Spanish architecture. The eye of the storm could remain over the island for up to two hours early Tuesday, exiting over the western city of Mayaguez, Matos said.

Islanders boarded up windows, lined up to buy water, then rushed to the beaches Monday to watch the waters rise, the winds churn the seas and surfers glory in the challenge.

Hundreds of tourist yachts, sailboats, house boats and government vessels sought shelter in mangrove swamps in bays of southwestern Puerto Rico.

Gov. Pedro Rossello, warning the whole island would be affected, urged people in low-lying areas to evacuate. He said he was concerned that only 550 of the 3.6 million islanders had sought refuge in government-run shelters.

Power was knocked out late Monday for 226,000 of the 1.1 million consumers.

At 11 p.m. EDT Monday, Hortense was centered 40 miles south-southeast of Ponce, according to the National Hurricane Center near Miami.

It was moving to the north-northwest at 9 mph and was expected to gain strength. Hurricane-force winds would spread across the south coast of Puerto Rico overnight, forecasters said.

The hurricane center warned rainfall of up to 12 inches and more could produce life-threatening flash floods and mud slides and strong onshore winds could produce storm surge flooding in Puerto Rico. There was also an isolated threat of tornadoes over Puerto Rico.

At St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, waves as tall as a house crashed over the 15-foot pier where cruise ships anchor at Frederiksted on Monday. Winds howled and gusted near 70 mph, driving sheets of rain that covered roads with 4 feet of water and flooded homes.

``These storms are crazy. I pray it doesn’t veer toward us,″ Jose Escobar said, boarding up the window of the store where he works in Ponce. He hurried to finish so he could wait out the storm at home with his wife and five children.

Hortense grew to hurricane strength Monday and enlarged to a 470-mile-wide mass, with sustained winds near 80 mph in the center and weaker tropical storm-force winds toward the edge.

Hortense also changed direction, stalling south of St. Croix then drifting in a northwest direction toward Puerto Rico.

At the Tropical Si liquor store in Ponce, people stood in long lines to buy water. Rafael Martinez, 42, waited nearly half an hour.

``This is the last thing I have to do. What will be, will be,″ he said.

Shelves of rum went untouched since Gov. Pedro Rosello on Sunday banned liquor sales during the passage of the storm. Police said they cited 18 storekeepers for illegally selling alcohol.

Couples with children drove to the beach at the southernmost tip of the city to watch in awe and trepidation as the gusting winds whipped up waves nearly 4 feet high. Surfers gloried in the challenge.

Children on bikes raced from from point to point to watch the waves, and cruising police patrols stopped to check that no one needed help.

Carmen Emilia Rodriguez, 69, was getting ready to evacuate her 84-year-old mother and a 91-year-old neighbor from their tiny beachfront homes. Already, waves were slapping the rocks 10 feet in front of the porch.

She was taking them to a friend’s home further inland in Ponce.

``All the garbage and all the driftwood washes up here during each storm,″ Rodriguez said. ``We are going.″

Her next-door neighbor, William Torres, 76, wasn’t budging. Shirtless in shorts and sandals, he watched the churning surf and said he would stay ``until the last minute. Nobody knows what is going to happen.

``Until the sea surges over the rocks, I have no fear.″

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