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Debby becomes hurricane, threatens Leeward Islands
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten -- Hurricane Debby raced toward the northern Leeward Islands early Tuesday -- it was upgraded from a tropical storm.
The fast-moving storm is forecast to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands later Tuesday -- but won't stay there for long. By noon local time it's expected to be lashing Puerto Rico with hurricane force winds. It's also predicted to drench the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico with heavy rains that could cause life-threatening flash floods and landslides.
Heavy rainfall is predicted to continue across the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for most of the day and could persist intermittently into Tuesday night.
At 5 a.m. Tuesday, Hurricane Debby was centered 40 miles southeast of St. Maarten in the Northern Leeward Islands. It was moving toward the west-northwest about 21 mph (33 km/h) and was expected to continue on that path Tuesday.
Debby's strongest sustained winds reached 75 mph (120 km/h) with stronger gusts. Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 25 miles (35 km) and tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 175 miles (280 km), mainly to the north of the storm's center.
Oil refinery shut down; ships forced to change course
The governments of France, Antigua, the United States and the Netherlands Antilles issued alerts for islands ranging from tiny Dominica, with about 75,000 people, to Puerto Rico with 3.8 million, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Anticipating the storm's westward passage during the week, warnings were also issued late Monday for parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
U.S. oil prices rose on Monday as Debby churned toward the U.S. Virgin Islands, home to the largest refinery in the Western Hemisphere. The Hovensa oil refinery in St. Croix, which processes some 545,000 barrels per day, shut down some units as a precaution as the storm approached, a spokesman said on Monday.
Across the northeastern Caribbean region, which has suffered the impact of several major storms in recent years, people prepared for the potential onslaught, protecting their homes by boarding windows, buying emergency supplies such as batteries and filling gas tanks.
In the Dutch territory of Saba, captains headed their dive boats for harbor. "It would just be devastating to be hit again by another storm," said Glenn Holm, director of tourism with the Saba Tourist Bureau. "We're well-trained now. We are beginning to close up shutters and put away flying things."
Guadeloupe, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were under hurricane warnings, which alert residents to hurricane conditions expected within 24 hours.
Cruise ships scheduled to dock on Tuesday and Wednesday at Havensight in Charlotte Amalie, a St. Thomas port, revised their itineraries because of the approaching storm.
Storm-battered islands prepare for direct hit
As residents shopped for batteries and other emergency supplies, Virgin Islands governor Charles Turnbull issued a consumer price freeze.
Included in the hurricane warning area were the Dutch territories of St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius; the French possessions Guadeloupe and St. Martin; independent nations Antigua and Barbuda; and St. Kitts and Nevis and other islands.
On the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic issued a tropical storm warning for some of the country while Haiti issued a hurricane watch for the north of the country. The Bahamas government has issued a tropical storm watch for southeastern islands in the Bahamas, the U.S. Hurricane Center said.
The Leeward Islands have been hit often in recent years. Some tourist destinations are still out of commission from the devastating passage of Hurricane Georges in 1998.
On Nevis, the upscale Four Seasons Resort, which has been closed since November 1999 after storm surge flooded out much of the property, is due to open on November 24 following a $50 million reconstruction.
Debby was threatening St. Kitts and Nevis during a regional celebration of Caribbean culture, called Carifesta VII. More than 1,000 artists, musicians, writers and intellectual leaders from throughout the Caribbean were visiting.
Ten ships and two submarines in the USS Harry Truman battle group abandoned training exercises off Vieques island and moved 300 miles south of Puerto Rico, the Navy said. Vieques is the site of recurrent protest over military exercises.
The fourth named storm of the Atlantic season emerged with unnerving suddenness as the season's first threat to land. Debby seemingly came out of nowhere Saturday and reached near-hurricane strength in little more than a day.
In volcano-plagued Montserrat, British Gov. Anthony Abbott warned in a radio broadcast that "There's a possibility that Debby could pass right over Montserrat."
Stormy weather likely would cause mudflows of volcanic debris down the Belham River, the Montserrat Volcano Observatory warned, though that area has been in the restricted danger zone.
Meteorologists in Antigua warned their residents to prepare for a direct hit.
Electricity on some parts of Antigua went out, apparently turned off to avoid storm damage. Motorists lined up for gas, and emergency specialists warned people living in roofless homes unrepaired since last year's hurricanes to get ready to head to shelters.
A flight by a hurricane hunter airplane Monday morning showed Debby was outpacing even the experts' forecasts.
"It's moving faster and it's also more intense than we had thought," said Henry Laskosky, a forecaster at the U.S. National Weather Service Office in San Juan.
Tropical storms form and are given names when maximum sustained winds reach 39 mph (63 kph) and they become hurricanes when top winds hit 74 mph (119 kph).
Debby nears hurricane strength as it approaches Caribbean
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