Marilyn tramples Virgin Islands

Published Sept. 17, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Hurricane Marilyn plowed through the U.S. Virgin Islands on Saturday, killing three people, leaving 100 injured or missing and destroying hundreds of homes.

The island of St. Thomas was "totally destroyed," a police officer there said.

The hurricane also hit the tiny Puerto Rican island of Culebra, ripping apart 200 houses. Puerto Rico's main island was spared major damage.

As Marilyn moved away from the Caribbean, meteorologists said it was not expected to hit the U.S. mainland. A low-pressure system should push it eastward into the open Atlantic.

But the damage was done. President Clinton declared the U.S. Virgin Islands _ St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John _ and Puerto Rico disaster areas, making them eligible for federal emergency aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent rescue, medical and communications teams to the area.

Marilyn, the fourth hurricane to pound 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 with 115-mph winds and 12-foot waves.

Federal emergency officials said at least three people died while out on boats. Virgin Islands Gov. Roy Schneider ordered a curfew while the National Guard policed the streets.

Virgin Islands

Initial reports indicated that 75 to 80 percent of the homes in St. Thomas, an island of 48,000 people, were seriously damaged or destroyed Saturday. The hospital was flooded and about 100 patients were expected to be taken to hospitals in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Coast Guard was conducting sea rescue operations late Saturday in St. Thomas harbor, where some 70 large boats were destroyed and 60 to 70 people reported to be on life boats or clinging to debris. A Coast Guard cutter was blown onto the road at the harbor.

Late Saturday, federal relief officials reported looting and unrest on all three of the main islands, including St. Croix, where most businesses were sacked by looters after Hurricane Hugo wrecked the island in 1989.

"We were not prepared for the hurricane," St. Thomas teacher Hannah Adams told the Puerto Rico newspaper El Nuevo Dia. "The government said on the radio that the winds would be around 40 miles per hour, but it was like an inferno. We lost everything."

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.

At least 12 people were hurt when a four-building apartment complex collapsed in Charlotte Amalie, the St. Thomas capital. Forty to 50 people were believed trapped inside.

Marilyn exploded the windows of the air control tower, and airports remained closed. Telephone service was disrupted when an antenna in Charlotte Amalie was knocked out.

There were no radio broadcasts except for amateur radio operators.

One of them, Lee Reisenweber, described the force of the hurricane to the U.N. Amateur Radio Readiness Group, a volunteer group based in New York, from a peak in St. Thomas.

"A Toyota pickup truck was picked up, rolled over and rolled down the hill," he said. "There's debris all over the hillside where there used to be foliage.

"Every palm tree, 50, 60 to 70 feet high, they've literally snapped in half," he said. "I don't see much above ground."

"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.

The federal emergency agency activated its "disaster medical assistance teams," civilian versions of MASH-style portable hospitals, said spokesman Phil Cogan.

Off St. Croix, six people were missing amid 12-foot waves that sank two fishing boats. The airport was open only to emergency and military aircraft, trailer parks were destroyed and roofs were ripped off many houses.

"There was a lot of damage done to the island," said Brian Maher, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Miami.

On St. John, officials said the power station was out of commission.

Puerto Rico

For an hour, the hurricane stalled over Culebra, a small island off Puerto Rico. And for at least that long, it flipped aircraft, stripped trees and splintered homes.

"It was like a wolf," said Adrian Bossa, a 34-year-old construction worker, trying to describe the frightful night. "Wooooooooh! It was really spooky."

Trees were felled and stripped of leaves by wind and salt water, homes flattened on hillsides _ their living rooms visible from the air. Other houses blew apart into fragments of wood and metal. Three yachts were beached hundreds of yards from shore.

Bossa said he watched as a tiny wooden house was "raised in the air, spun around and then just blew up." His own propane gas tank blew away, "and then the washing machine flew into the air like it was a balloon."

There were no immediate reports of casualties on the island, although one person was missing.

Gov. Pedro Rossello said that 50 homes were destroyed and 200 more were severely damaged on Culebra, an island of 3,000 people about 20 miles east of the main Puerto Rican island.

"We're still bailing here," Lt. Julio Luis Soto-Rodriguez of the police department said by phone. "The wind and water hit us hard.

"Have you ever been in a blender?" he asked. "That's how we felt."

Damage was minimal along the northeast coast of mainland Puerto Rico. Electrical workers spent most of the day trying to restore power to some 200,000 houses.