CBSN

Georges Batters Caribbean

The season's most ferocious hurricane plowed into Puerto Rico on Monday after raking other parts of the Caribbean and forcing tens of thousands of people into shelters. At least five people died on the island and one woman was killed on St. Kitts.

Packing winds up to 130 mph and churning up 20-foot waves, Hurricane Georges toppled power lines, smashed hotel windows, mangled trees and blew away roofs as families huddled in shelters in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Antigua and other islands earlier Monday.

President Clinton declared Puerto Rico a disaster area, authorizing release of federal recovery aid.

The hurricane appeared headed for the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Many of that island's 15 million people live in substandard housing that could leave them exposed to Georges' fury.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami forecast a landfall in the Dominican Republic as early as 2 a.m. EDT Tuesday.

The storm caused power and water outages affecting more than 700,000 people in Puerto Rico, shattered hotel windows and spawned tornados in central Barranquitas and the island of Vieques.

"Our people have very difficult days to come," Gov. Pedro Rossello warned earlier.

As of 1 a.m., Georges' center was just off Puerto Rico's shore, about 25 miles west-southwest of the west coast city of Mayaguez. It was centered near 18.1 north latitude and 67.5 west longitude. Earlier, the storm had passed St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where all power was knocked out.

Radar images showed the enormous storm hovering directly over Puerto Rico late Monday night, its center close to the southern coast.

Georges was upgraded to a category 3 hurricane Monday afternoon, when the storm's maximum sustained winds reached 115 mph, with gusts up to 130 mph, the Hurricane Center said.

Moving west at 15 mph, the storm packed hurricane-force winds up to 85 miles from the eye, mostly to the northeast.

The Hurricane Center warned the storm winds while diminished from a monstrous 150 mph recorded Sunday remained "extremely dangerous," and director Jerry Jarrell said there were indications Georges was intensifying.

Advance teams from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI and the American Red Cross arrived in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. President Clinton declared states of emergency in both territories.

The hurricane destroyed at least 60 homes on Vieques and the island of Culebra, said Mari Tere Pacheco, a spokeswoman for the civil defense authority.

A few hours later, three people were killed in Toa Alta, outside of San Juan, where almost half of the U.S. territory's 3.8 million residents live. They died in a landslide, although more details weren't immediately available, civil defense officials said. They had said earlier the three were killed when a roof collapsed.

Anothetwo people died of heart attacks in shelters during the storm, and one person was reported missing in a separate landslide in Trujillo Alto, a southern suburb of San Juan.

"It's been a disaster here," said Amalio Loiz, head of civil defense in the town of Umacao near where the hurricane first struck the island.

Rossello banned liquor sales and ordered more than 330 shelters opened. Banks and schools closed, airlines canceled flights to and from the U.S. mainland, and ferry service was suspended. People were ordered off the beaches.

More than 20,000 people left their homes for shelters in San Juan, Arecibo, Mayaguez and other cities.

With up to 15 inches of rain expected in Puerto Rico's mountains, the threat of mudslides drove many mountain residents to shelters in San Juan.

"The roof of my house is made of wood and cardboard, and I'd rather be here before it goes flying," said Miguel Mercado Romero.

In St. Kitts, government spokesman Erasmus Williams said one woman was killed. He gave no details.

In St. Croix, raging winds bent palm trees to one-third of their height, shook parked cars and destroyed part of the boardwalk. In St. Thomas, also part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, winds were at about 75 mph and increasing.

A hurricane warning went into effect in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and hurricane watches were announced for the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands. There was concern as far away as Florida, where workers put shutters over the windows at Key West's City Hall.

In Cuba, the Interior Ministry issued a hurricane warning to residents of the island's easternmost provinces. The area has been hit hard by a drought in recent months.

Some cruise ships headed south to get out of Georges' way, and others changed their schedules to make Caribbean stops before heading to storm-free Mexico.

Georges first hit land Sunday night, downing trees and utility lines, ripping wooden and galvanized roofs from homes and pelting sheets of rain into residences on the northern Leeward islands.

In Antigua, where 5,700 people spent the night in shelters, the storm split open government-built homes in northern Cedar Grove Garden and ripped corrugated roofs off hundreds of other houses.

Antiguan shop owners erected sandbag barricades to stop flooding. Civil defense workers distributed flashlights, mosquito coils, water and toilet paper to nervous shelter residents.

All of the island's television and radio stations were off the air, and rain washed out the road near Urlins, on the southern coast, stranding a bus. It was pulled from the water by backhoe, and no injuries were reported.

In the French island of Guadeloupe, swirling winds knocked out power in several towns. One man was shot and killed by guards while trying to escape from jail.

Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States, ordered hard hts, chainsaws, pry bars and other gear that might be needed if the hurricane strikes. Drivers with city vehicles were told to fill their gasoline tanks.

"Everybody's in anticipation. This is pins and needles," said Dolores Ruvo, dockmaster at Whale Harbor Marina, home to 20 fishing and drift boats in the Florida Keys.