Monstrous Hurricane Lenny battered the Virgin Islands Wednesday, concentrating its wrath on the island of St. Croix while inflicting only relatively minor damage on St. Thomas and St. John.
As of 6 p.m.,the east end of St. Croix was still being hit by winds as high as 100 mph and torrential rains as Lenny moved out slowly toward the northeastern Caribbean.
From St. Thomas, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull said at 8 p.m. that he knew of no hurricane-related fatalities or injuries.
The governor said initial damage assessments showed that the islands came through this hurricane in better shape than they did in 1989's Hugo and 1995's Marilyn.
In a telephone interview with The Weather Channel, a mainland cable channel, Turnbull said he would fly to St. Croix on Thursday to inspect the damage there.
"We have no reports of fatalities or injuries," Turnbull said.
Communication with St. Croix was difficult, but at 10 p.m. AST Lt. Gov. G. Luz James was interviewed on the telephone by The Weather Channel.
James, speaking from St. Croix, said the island's "infrastructure" had been damaged but that a realistic assessment would have to wait until daylight Thursday. The hardest hit areas were the west coast, including Frederiksted, and the south shore, he said. The giant Hess Oil refinery is on the south shore but James did not mention it.
One radio station transmitter tower was blown down, and there was no electricity on the island of 50,000 residents, James added.
St. Croix radio stations carried reports of roofs peeled off and windows shattered by the relentless winds. Initial reports said Frederiksted on the west end of the island was especially hard hit, as monster waves of 20 to 30 feet burst over the seawall and flooded part of the small town this morning.
For most of the daylight hours, the center of the rogue hurricane moved eastward just south of St. Croix. The storm gained strength throughout the day, approaching a "catastrophic" Category 5 before turning northeast and heading at about 9 mph for Sint Maarten and other islands of the northeastern Caribbean.
As of about 5 p.m., telephone communications with the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency headquarters on St. Croix were not functioning. Repeated calls to the published number, 773-2244, led to a busy signal or else an intercept followed by clicking sounds and then silence.
Clayton Sutton, VITEMA deputy director on St. Thomas, and St. Thomas communications officer Ron Martin said at 5:30 p.m. that they had not been able to reach the St. Croix headquarters for some time by regular or satellite phone.
The St. Croix headquarters is located in Hermon Hill, and "all the antennas are up there" for telecommunications, Martin said. He speculated that the antennas had likely been disabled by the hurricane's assault.
No one at the St. Thomas VITEMA headquarters could provide information about the status of emergency shelters or deployment of V.I. National Guard forces on St. Croix. The National Guard "has been activated since 6 p.m. Tuesday," Sutton said, but he had no more specific information.
At one of the designated St. Croix shelters, the Claude O. Markoe Elementary School in Frederiksted, windows were shattered Wednesday afternoon, forcing the 11 people housed there to flee to a safer refuge.
At another shelter, the mid-island Education Complex, toilet facilities were not functioning because of generator problems. The shelter was housing 132 people as of Wednesday morning.
There were reports of a man seen clinging to rocks by the Carambola Resort on St. Croix's north shore. According to Police Commissioner Franz Christian, the man was rescued.
Rumors that a man and his son in a car were washed out to sea near Frederiksted circulated Wednesday afternoon but could not be confirmed.
The Weather Channel reported distress signals from a small boat in Virgin Islands waters but didn't say where it was. VITEMA director Gene Walker told a local radio station he had heard about the distress signal but could not confirm it.
Hurricane-force winds were expected to begin abating on St. Croix around 7 p.m., with gale-force winds projected to continue until at least 4 a.m. Thursday.
On St. Thomas and St. John, gale-force winds were expected to continue until 2 to 3 a.m., according to a release from Delegate Donna Christian-Christiansen's Washington office.
Christiansen, who was briefed Wednesday by Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, said FEMA Rapid Needs Assessment Teams were in place and ready to begin work if President Clinton declared a federal disaster in the territory. Turnbull has already asked the President for such a declaration — a routine procedure when a hurricane threatens major damage to a state or territory.
Food and supplies in the territory and in Puerto Rico are adequate to last a few days, the delegate reported. If a disaster is declared, FEMA is expected to focus its efforts on St. Croix, she said.
Meanwhile, wind gusts up to 80 mph were recorded on the south shore of St. Thomas Wednesday, Radio One reported. Power outages were erratic islandwide during the day, with power restored to Frenchtown, Charlotte Amalie and the North Side by 8 p.m. Wednesday.
As bad as it was on St. Croix – and the full extent of the damage there still is not known – Hurricane Lenny could have done far worse. Twenty-four hours ago, forecasters projected that the hurricane would hit the Virgin Islands head on. But a turn to the northeast that had been anticipated did not take place until Lenny passed close to St. Croix's south shore. That saved St. Thomas and St. John from major damage.


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