Weather News

Hugo slams Puerto Rico, Southeast in danger unless storm stalls

Wrecked and devastated homes of the Ocean Park Section of San Juan, September 18, 1989, from Hurricane Hugo.
Wrecked and devastated homes of the Ocean Park Section of San Juan, September 18, 1989, from Hurricane Hugo. ASSOCIATED PRESS

More from the series

Hurricane Hugo coverage from The State: Sept. 17 - Sept. 24, 1989

Read more stories from The State’s original reporting of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. From Hugo’s collision with the Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico to its catastrophic landfall near Charleston, The State kept readers up-to-date with vital news about the event that turned into the worst storm South Carolina has ever seen.

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This story was first published in The State on September 19, 1989.

Hurricane Hugo left tens of thousands homeless in Puerto Rico Monday, and scientists said its course and possible impact on the East Coast of the United States depended on timing.

Hugo’s 125 mph winds slammed into the eastern tip of Puerto Rico and skirted the northern coast before roaring to the west-northwest toward the edge of the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.

If Hugo moves along as quickly as it has so far, meteorologists say, it should approach the U.S. coast just in time to catch a ride on a huge current of air that will probably guide it to a landfall somewhere between northern Florida and southern North Carolina.

But if it stalls, conditions almost certainly will change. Then, the scientists say, a different air current is likely to direct the storm toward the Middle Atlantic states or the Northeast.

The meteorologists say that it should become clear by Wednesday or Thursday which path the hurricane will follow. But in either case, barring some unexpected turn, they believe that a landfall somewhere on the East Coast is likely.

“It doesn’t seem at all likely that Hugo is going to turn out to sea” as another major storm, Hurricane Gabrielle, did 10 days ago, said Paul G. Knight, a meteorologist in the Weather Communications Group at Pennsylvania State University, which plots daily weather patterns nationally.

He said it was possible, but unlikely, that the storm could cross into the Gulf of Mexico.

Late Monday, Puerto Rico Gov. Hernandez Colon said he would “ask President Bush to declare the island a disaster area” after a tour showed at least 27,900 people were left homeless by the storm.

Colon and Police Superintendent Ismael Betancourt said there were no immediate reports of hurricane-related deaths but that poor communications across the island prevented any definitive reports on damages or casualties.

Hugo is expected to hit the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Civil defense authorities in the Dominican Republic declared a state of emergency and the country’s four international airports were closed.

At 10:30 p.m. EDT, the center of the hurricane was near latitude 20.1 degrees north and longitude 67.2 west, about 125 miles northwest of San Juan, according to the National Weather Service in Florida.

Hugo’s winds overturned cars and stripped roofs off houses and office buildings and sent chunks of concrete plunging into streets in San Juan, where one-third of the U.S. commonwealth’s 3.3 million people live. Fifty airplanes were reported destroyed at the airport in Isla Verde.

One woman in a San Juan high-rise told radio station WOSO that she watched sections of the city darken one after another as the high winds and heavy rains moved across San Juan. Widespread power outages also were reported in the Dominican Republic.

Fourteen deaths have been blamed on the storm so far. In Puerto Rico, one man was electrocuted Sunday while trying to remove a television antenna as he prepared for the storm.

Bands of people, mostly youths, looted storm-damaged shops in San Juan, and police patrols were reinforced at the main Post Office, political party offices and shopping areas.

In a ground floor boutique of the two-story building housing The Associated Press bureau in San Juan, young looters defied winds hitting 100 mph and carried out armloads of women’s clothing.

In Miami, Eastern Airlines spokeswoman Karen Ceremsak said the carrier was able to fly a Boeing 727 charter to the Dominican resort of Puerto Plata earlier Monday and return to Miami with about 135 vacationers.

Travel agents in Columbia said Hugo was having little effect on the travel plans of area residents.

“This is not a real big travel time from Columbia to the Caribbean,” said Polly Wingate, manager of Wingate Travel Service.

But Puerto Rico was the destination for two South Carolinians who married Saturday.

John Michael Ratteree and his new wife, Linda Joy Pidgeon -- a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines -- arrived at the airport early Sunday only to find that their cruise had been canceled.

“They jumped on a plane and flew to Waikiki,” the bride’s mother, Linda Pidgeon of Columbia, said. “We’re real relieved.”

As Hugo churns toward the west-northwest, scientists are watching its movement in relation to atmospheric forces over the North Atlantic and the U.S.

Acting together, these forces produce the massive air currents expected to carry the hurricane to its landfall on the East Coast.

By Thursday morning, “we’re going to be at a critical juncture,” said Mark Zimmer, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

That is when scientists will know whether the storm is going to head toward the south Atlantic Coast or veer more toward the north and the big population centers of the Northeast.

Until then, he said, “What we don’t want to do is wave the emergency flag at anyone.”

Knight, on the other hand, said he believed that by midday Wednesday it should become clear when and where the hurricane was going to become fixed in an air current that would carry it to land.

After a hurricane is born in the tropics, he said, it moves erratically, its spinning motion carrying it forward.

But as it moves farther to the west and north, it encounters surrounding air currents capable of directing its movement. It becomes embedded in such currents.

The currents, in turn, are produced by the interaction of large systems of high and low pressure. Winds move clockwise around a high-pressure system and counterclockwise around a low-pressure system. Under some conditions, these winds merge to form a big current capable of carrying a hurricane.

Such a condition now exists over the North Atlantic and the U.S., Knight said.

A weak system of low pressure at an altitude of about 20,000 feet, now over the Appalachians, is moving slowly toward the Gulf of Mexico.

At the same time, a big high-pressure system is over the Atlantic, its center near Bermuda. The winds circulating around these systems combine to create a major air current whose winds blow toward the South Atlantic coast from the Southeast.

Hurricane Hugo is moving toward that current of air. If it reaches the current before the Bermuda high and the Appalachian low move, the current will seize the storm and direct it at the south Atlantic Coast.

But by Friday, the Appalachian low is expected to have moved out of the picture. The Bermuda high in the Atlantic is to have moved far to the north.

And another system of low pressure, this one carried from the west by the jet stream, is expected to move into the Northeast.

The winds from this low, combined with those from the Atlantic high in its new position, would create a new current of air to carry the hurricane. This current would be aimed at the Middle Atlantic states, possibly including the New York area.

Knight said that if Hugo becomes fixed in the more southerly air current, it will become apparent by Wednesday. If that happens, he said, the storm is likely to come ashore on the South Atlantic coast.

“This is what we expect to happen,” probably on Thursday, he said.

Unexpected factors can always change the situation, he said. For instance, if a storm becomes unusually intense, it can grow to such a size that it is controlled by air currents at altitudes higher than those that now appear about to affect Hugo.

That, he said, is why meteorologists like to hedge their forecasts.

Tropical Storm Iris rose in the wake of Hugo and forecasters advised residents of the battered Leeward Islands to keep a close watch on the new storm. They said Iris, with 50 mph winds, was about 300 miles east of the Leeward Islands Monday night and was moving north-northwest at about 18 mph.

The governments of Barbados, St. Vincent and St. Lucia issued warnings for Iris. Tropical depressions become tropical storms when their top sustained winds reach 39 mph. A tropical storm becomes a hurricane when the sustained winds are 74 mph or more.

The Hurricane Center said swirling weather patterns left by Hugo made further strengthening unlikely for Iris through tonight.


Here is an island-by-island look based on initial reports.

PUERTO RICO: More than 27,000 people reported homeless Monday. No water and no electricity. Heavy damage and flooding. Most streets littered with shattered glass, downed trees and strips of roofing. U.S. Navy ships steamed northward out of the storm’s path.

GUADELOUPE: Five people reported killed Sunday, 80 injured and more than 10,000 homeless on the French island of 340,000 people. Basic goods and water in short supply.

ANTIGUA: Two people killed. Widespread wind and rain damage.

MONTSERRAT: Six deaths reported on the British island. Wind and rain damage widespread. About 12,000 homeless and without food or fresh water.

ST. KITTS: Houses damaged. No reports of casualties.

U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS: St. Croix and St. Thomas hard hit. Stores in the St. Croix town of Christiansted heavily damaged. Reports of looting.

BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS: Trees uprooted and power knocked out Sunday. Numerous injuries and scores of homes destroyed on the resort island of Tortola. Communications out.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.