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It Was Like Being ‘In A Blender’ As Hurricane Rips Up Island Homes

SUNDAY, SEPT. 17, 1995

With ferocious winds, story-high waves and lightning-forked storms, Hurricane Marilyn raged through the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Saturday, tearing apart homes, tossing aside airplanes and toppling towers.

The island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was “totally destroyed,” a police officer there said.

Marilyn moved away from the Caribbean region later in the day, and all hurricane and storm watches were canceled. At 2 p.m. PDT, Marilyn was 125 miles north-northwest of San Juan, drifting into the open Atlantic.

But the damage had been done. At least three people were reported dead, and 100 more were injured or missing, including several dozen trapped in a collapsed apartment complex on St. Thomas.

President Clinton declared the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico disaster areas, making them eligible for federal emergency aid.

At the airport of Culebra, an island of 3,000 people 20 miles east of Puerto Rico’s main island, Marilyn swept a light airplane onto a restaurant at the end of the runway.

“Have you ever been in a blender? That’s how we felt,” said police Lt. Julio Soto.

The hilly island’s trees were felled like sticks and stripped of leaves. Homes were flattened on hillsides, their open living rooms visible from the air. Others blew apart into fragments of wood and metal. Three yachts were beached hundreds of yards from the central lagoon. Roads were washed out.

Six people were missing amid 12-foot waves that sank two fishing boats off St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two U.S. Coast Guard helicopters saved two people from the boats, said Petty Officer Tim Lavier in Puerto Rico. The survivors, whose condition was not known, were evacuated to a Navy hospital in Puerto Rico.

Unconfirmed reports indicated at least three people were killed and 100 more injured on St. Thomas, said Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt in Washington. At least 12 people were hurt in the collapse of the four-building Tower Apartment complex in the capital, Charlotte Amalie, and 40 to 50 more were believed trapped inside, he said.

“Some buildings look like they exploded,” said Lt. Commander Ed Barker, a spokesman who described a Navy film taken during an overflight of St. Thomas on Saturday.

A Coast Guard cutter was blown onto the road at Charlotte Amalie harbor, Barker said. The U.S. Coast Guard said the 82-foot patrol boat was pushed by winds onto its own pier.

Marilyn blew the windows out of St. Thomas hospital and flooded it. The hospital had 40 patients before the hurricane and nine critically injured in the storm, said Manuel Guzman, who went to the island from Puerto Rico Saturday to help in evacuations.

The total number of injured on St. Thomas remained unclear late Saturday, police Capt. Calvin I. Mercell said.

“But the island is totally destroyed,” he told El Nuevo Dia. “The government says that 80 percent of the homes were destroyed.”

Marilyn, the fourth hurricane to hit the Caribbean in as many weeks, hit St. Croix on Friday and grew in strength and size as it surged over St. Thomas, St. John and Puerto Rico’s eastern islands Saturday.

Marilyn demolished wooden homes, ripped roofs off buildings and blocked roads with toppled utility poles and trees. It also left entire islands without electricity or phones, making it difficult to confirm reports of deaths, injuries and extensive damage.

FEMA was activating its “disas ter medical assistance teams,” civilian versions of MASH-style portable hospitals, spokesman Phil Cogan said.

Ham radio operators in Puerto Rico received a message from St. Croix indicating there was no power on the island. The last confirmed contact with St. Croix came late Friday, when Lt. Gov. Kenneth Mapp said the roof of his bunker was collapsing.

The storm toppled a radio tower in St. Croix and destroyed the air control tower in St. Thomas, where controllers were using binoculars and radios to bring in military aircraft on Saturday.

The hurricane stalled for an hour over Culebra.

“There are houses down everywhere. The roads are washed out. A lot of boats are all over the place. The phone keeps sizzling out,” said a resident who got through to Puerto Rico’s Newstalk 1560 radio. “The island is devastated.”

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