Irene's eye crosses St. Croix


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Tropical Storm Irene brought gusty winds, rain and generally foul weather to the Virgin Islands on Sunday.

As the storm intensified throughout the day, both of the territory's airports were closed, seaports were shut, scattered power outages hit and shelters were opened on St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.

About 5:30 p.m. Sunday, the center of Irene passed directly over St. Croix, said Jose Alamo, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Juan.

While the relatively calm center moved over St. Croix late in the afternoon, St. Thomas actually was seeing worse wind, with sustained winds of about 40 mph, Alamo said. A wind gust recorded about 5:20 p.m. Sunday on St. Thomas reached 68 mph.

After the center passed, the wind and rain started to pick up again on St. Croix.

At 11 p.m., Tropical Storm Irene was 52 miles from St. Croix just south of Vieques, with winds aproaching 70 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecasters predicted that the islands would experience tropical storm conditions until about 2 a.m. today, Alamo said.

The remainder of today should bring "much calmer weather," he said, although the forecast still called for cloudiness, scattered showers and breezy conditions, with some thunderstorms possible.

On Sunday afternoon, Gov. John deJongh Jr. declared a state of emergency, imposing a curfew from 6 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. today on St. Croix and from 8 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. today in the St. Thomas-St. John District.

The territory's airports closed at 5 p.m. Sunday, with officials tentatively planning to reopen them at 7 a.m. today, based on a re-evaluation this morning, said V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Kenn Hobson.

The U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan Captain of the Port, Capt. Drew Pearson, closed the ports on St. Croix at noon Sunday until further notice, according to a statement the U.S. Coast Guard released. Other ports in the territory were closed to incoming vessels until further notice.

Emergency shelters opened Sunday afternoon at: St. Croix Educational Complex, the Sugar Estate Head Start Center shelter on St. Thomas and Julius Sprauve School on St. John, according to a statement released Sunday afternoon by the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.

V.I. Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said Sunday afternoon that his crews were out checking known trouble spots.

His biggest concern, he said, was "the wind and rain. We've had a significant amount of rainfall, and the ground is just about saturated."

He said that such rainfall could cause downed trees, mudslides and rock slides.

The V.I. Waste Management Authority issued an advisory Sunday afternoon warning all residents that the sewer collection system had a large inflow of stormwater, which had caused overflows in some areas.

The authority advised residents to avoid known areas where manhole overflows occur and to proceed through standing water with extreme caution.

Until the rains and the run-off subside, the sewer system will continue to be impacted. Waste Management asked residents to report any overflows to the customer service line at 713-1962 or 774-4139, or to report the problem on the authority's website at www.viwma.org.

V.I. Water and Power Authority spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said that there had been scattered power outages across the territory because of the winds and rain on Sunday.

Line crews worked to repair the problems until conditions deteriorated on Sunday afternoon and will begin work again this morning after an assessment, she said.

WAPA implemented its "three-strike" rule during the storm, meaning that if a feeder goes down, WAPA would try to restore it three times. If three attempts are unsuccessful, the feeder stays down until the storm passes and crews can assess the problem.

"We endeavor to maintain the three-strike rule," she said. "But if it seems a potential danger to life and equipment, we'll just let it stay down until we can assess the situation."

WAPA's call center will be open at 7 a.m. today. The numbers to report a problem are 773-0150 or 713-9272 on St. Croix and 774-1424 and 777-9272 in the St. Thomas-St. John District.

About 3,600 tourists currently are in the territory, and the Tourism Department has activated its emergency information website, www.usviupdate.com, according to VITEMA.

Tourism also notified the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association to activate its storm response plans.

Three cruise ships were scheduled to call on St. Thomas today, but the Carnival Miracle had cancelled its call as of Sunday afternoon, according to VITEMA spokeswoman Christine Lett.

The remaining two ships are waiting to see how conditions are and when the port reopens to incoming vessels, she said.

Tropical Storm Irene skipped tropical depression status altogether and got a name Saturday night, after a hurricane hunter aircraft investigated the storm, which the National Hurricane Center had been watching.

By Sunday morning, Irene's outer rain bands already were affecting the Virgin Islands.

Some residents rushed to buy supplies and get prepared on Sunday, while others seemed to be taking it all in stride, carrying on with business as usual.

As the approaching tropical storm sent squalls across the island Sunday morning, Dariel Ruiz was at church in Christiansted.

Ruiz's husband, Pastor Ruben Ruiz of La Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, let the service out early to make sure everyone prepared for the oncoming storm, Dariel Ruiz said.

Immediately after the service, about 12:45 p.m., the Ruizes were one family among hundreds that made their way to Plaza Extra East, where they bought a couple of carts' worth of supplies.

"We're expecting it to be a significant storm," she said, her cart loaded up with jugs of water, batteries, bread, juice, canned food and shelf-stable milk.

Dariel Ruiz said they would wait out the duration of the storm with their family - and enjoy the time together.

"We sing," she said. "We pray. We have fun with the kids."

Plaza Extra East Manager Michaelina Henry said that families like the Ruizes were taking this storm much more seriously than other storms in the past couple years.

"I didn't see that much last year, but it seems this time they're taking the storm pretty serious," Henry said.

Under the open-air shelter of the La Reine Chicken Shack, a large group gathered on Sunday afternoon, occasionally dodging the rain carried in by gusts of wind, but mostly just sitting back, eating, drinking and enjoying themselves as a DJ played a mix of soca, merengue, calypso and reggae music.

"It was a regular crowd for a weekend - a Sunday crowd," said the restaurant's co-owner, Angel Diaz. "Some people were concerned, and some are just relaxing."

Edna Hamilton was somewhere in between as she sat with friends listening to the music and talking. While she was enjoying herself, she knew that soon she would have to go home and protect her collection of orchids by moving them into a greenhouse, she said.

Hamilton said that news spreads through places such as the La Reine Chicken Shack quickly, too - like the news of the 6 p.m. curfew.

"The thing about here is, all the news goes through here," she said. "So, I didn't know that there was a curfew, but that spread here. We have our little family network."

News of the curfew had just been announced when St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell showed up about 3 p.m. to make sure Diaz knew.

Diaz closed the restaurant about 4 p.m. - just before the full force of the storm began its move over St. Croix, but he said he was glad to be able to open up for people for most of the day.

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