Hurricane Debby threatens Puerto Rico, other islands

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Compact, quick-moving Debby became the first hurricane to make landfall this season, hitting several small Caribbean islands on a northwesterly route that menaced Puerto Rico and the Bahamas archipelago.

Forecasters said it was too early to gauge the threat to the U.S. mainland.

With winds up to 75 mph, Debby was a Category 1 hurricane, apparently causing little damage on Antigua, Anguilla and other small islands Tuesday morning. It then made a slight - but crucial - turn to the north that meant populous Puerto Rico and the vulnerable Dominican Republic could be spared the worst.

''We've fared well. I'm looking outside at my garden, which was devastated by Hurricane Lenny last year, and it still has flowers,'' said Glen Holm, director of the tourism bureau on the Dutch island of Saba.

On nearby St. Maarten, battered by hurricanes in recent years, a curfew was lifted and meteorologist Ashford James celebrated the passage of ''Little Debby.''

Still, the threat was sufficient to disrupt life throughout the northern Caribbean as residents, tourists, businesses and authorities sprang into the routine - terrifying to some, exhilarating to others - of bracing for a storm.

A 78-year-old San Juan man died Tuesday, Puerto Rican police reported, when he fell off a roof as he tried to dismantle a television antenna.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the storm caused a few power outages but little damage. Airlines canceled flights, schools and banks closed, storekeepers nailed plywood to windows, cruise lines diverted ships and a major oil refinery was partially shut down.

''Hitting the U.S. is not for certain at all. It's too early to say right now if it will hit Florida or not,'' Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said. If it did, it could likely approach Florida by Friday morning.

In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 4 million people, there was relief at predictions Debby's eye would pass just north of the island, meaning a probability of lesser, tropical storm-force winds. Still, officials warned of life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.

''We're really concerned about Puerto Rico, always, just because of the high terrain they have down there,'' Mayfield said. ''We're forecasting 4 to 6 inches (of rain), and they could have some locally heavier amounts up to 10 inches.''

The U.S. Navy abandoned exercises near the outlying island of Vieques, moving 10 ships and two submarines 300 miles south.

At 3 p.m. EDT, Debby was centered about 35 miles northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was moving west-northwest near 20 mph carrying maximum winds of 75 mph, with higher gusts. Hurricane-force winds extended 25 miles from the storm's center and tropical storm-force winds another 175 miles.

Hurricane warnings were posted for the British Turks and Caicos islands and the southeastern Bahamas, and a hurricane watch was in effect for the central Bahamas and northern Haiti.

The twin-island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis was spared, enabling the continuation of Carifesta, a 35-nation arts and music festival that began Thursday.

In Cuba, a hurricane alert was declared for three northeastern provinces. Civil defense authorities cleaned lopped weak branches off trees and higher-than-normal waves and tides were reported on the northern coast.

On St. Croix island, HOVENSA, one of the largest oil refineries in the Western Hemisphere, shut down some processing units, said spokesman Alex Moorhead. Fears the facility would suspend activity completely had caused the price of oil futures to shoot up Monday.

In Puerto Rico, tourists boarded early morning flights from San Juan for the U.S. mainland.

Lane Goldberg, 16, of Westport, Conn., was with a youth group trying to get home after working on community service projects in Tortola.

''It's been crazy, some kids were crying, kids were freaking out, parents were freaking out,'' Goldberg said. He was bumped from four flights at San Juan's airport.

Others were more relaxed.

''I hope it's over soon, because I need a suntan by Sunday,'' said Diana Chiquito of New York City, sunbathing on San Juan's Condado beach. Offshore, surfers enjoyed the higher waves.

Still churning in the northern Atlantic, hundreds of miles off Newfoundland, was Hurricane Alberto, the longest-lived August tropical storm on record. It formed Aug. 4.


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