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Debby forces islanders to seek shelters

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CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands — Debby barreled into the northeastern Caribbean on Tuesday, becoming the first storm of the Atlantic hurricane season to make landfall and sending scores of islanders into hastily opened shelters.

Airlines canceled flights, schools and banks closed, storekeepers nailed plywood to windows and cruise lines diverted ships as Debby, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, swirled west-northwest past the northern Leeward Islands at about 21 mph.

There were no reports of injury or significant damage from St. Maarten, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda as Debby next targeted the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In Anguilla, wind gusts of 60 mph downed utility poles and trees.

In St. Maarten — battered in recent years by a series of hurricanes — the government declared a curfew. "We received some heavy and winds rain overnight, and we expect 5 to 6 inches of rainfall," said Eddie Williams of GVBC Radio.

The U.S. Virgin Islands also declared a curfew, and Gov. Charles Turnbull declared a state of emergency in the U.S. territory.

Speaking on Radio One, Turnbull urged residents to stay calm and said he was asking for federal help in advance of the storm.

In the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, HOVENSA, one of the largest oil refineries in the Western Hemisphere, shut down some processing units and was considering a complete shutdown, said spokesman Alex Moorhead.

The possibility that HOVENSA, with a refining capacity of 500,000 barrels a day, could suspend activity was being closely watched by investors who saw the price of oil futures shoot up Monday. The refinery is a joint venture between Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corp. and the Venezuelan PDVSA state oil company.

At 11 a.m., Debby was centered near Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and was moving toward the west-northwest near 21 mph.

Debby's maximum sustained winds reached 75 mph, just above the hurricane threshold of 74 mph, and were expected to strengthen further.

Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 25 miles from the storm's center, and tropical storm-force winds of over 39 mph extended another 175 miles. Wind gusts up to 76 mph were reported in St. Barts, and 60 mph in St. Maarten.

In Puerto Rico, officials warned of life-threatening flash floods and mudslides. Sporadic rain bands accompanied by lightning flashed across San Juan Bay, and wind gusts bent palm trees.

Schools closed, shelters opened, people jammed stores for emergency supplies and tourists boarded early morning flights from San Juan for the U.S. mainland. Airlines canceled afternoon flights, when Debby was expected to approach the island — but U.S. Postal Service workers were ordered to report for work as usual.

"My parents are frantic, they're screaming at everyone," said Julian Arato, 15, of New York City, who had been bumped from a fourth flight at San Juan's international airport.

Ten ships and two submarines in the USS Harry Truman battle group abandoned training off the Puerto Rican island of Vieques — the site of recurrent protests over military exercises — and moved 300 miles south, the U.S. Navy said.

Hurricane warnings were in effect for Anguilla, St. Eustatius, the British and U.S. Virgin islands, Puerto Rico and the north coast of the Dominican Republic. A hurricane watch was in effect for the southeastern Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos islands and northern Haiti.

Hurricane warnings were discontinued for Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat and Guadeloupe, and a tropical storm warning was dropped for Dominica. Forecasters said it was too early to gauge any threat to the U.S. mainland.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the National Park Service closed its grounds on the island of St. John, and boaters moved to safe harbor, securing their vessels in mangrove swamps.

Carnival Cruise Lines said it was diverting three of its ships now in the eastern Caribbean to areas farther north, west and south to avoid the storm.

Elsewhere, Hurricane Alberto, the longest-lived August tropical storm on record, was moving in a circle in the open Atlantic. The hurricane was about 895 miles west-northwest of the Azores and had accelerated, moving north-northeast at about 17 mph. Alberto formed Aug. 4 and hasn't threatened land.

On the Net: National Hurricane Center: www.nhc.noaa.gov