Hurricane Georges began lashing the easternmost islands of the Caribbean on Sunday, forcing families to huddle in basements and businesses to pile sandbags in front of their entrances.
Winds were gusting to 50 mph in Antigua by the early afternoon, with forecasters predicting the arrival of the hurricane's full 135-mph fury by Sunday evening.Government officials throughout the region warned that Georges could cause the worst damage in decades.
Residents of Guadeloupe and Dominica, fearing the hurricane would peel roofs off homes, moved beds into their basements or headed to hurricane shelters set up in schools. Many church congregations cut Sunday services short in order to convert their sanctuaries into shelters.
On Antigua, workers at the island's cable television company took down its satellite dishes, while others removed aluminum light poles from the parking lot of the island's Woods Centre shopping center. Rain began at noon and was growing more intense by the hour.
The eye of Georges was expected to pass over the small, eastern Caribbean islands later Sunday before moving on to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The Hurricane Center said storm surge flooding of 5 to 10 feet above normal tide levels and 5 to 8 inches of rain should be expected in islands within the 85-mile hurricane-wind radius.
Georges strengthened Saturday to a category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale - comparable to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated parts of southern Florida in 1992, or Hurricane Hugo, which causedsevere damage in the Caribbean in 1989.
Hurricane warnings were extended Sunday morning as far west as the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, leaving all of the eastern Caribbean north of Dominica under a warning.
In Puerto Rico, where 3.8 million residents waited in the path of the storm, many people rushed to stores for plywood, water and canned food.
"Hurricanes come every year here, but this one looks like it's serious," said Jose Firpi as he boarded up windows in his San Juan home.
Gov. Pedro Rossello activated the island's national guard and ordered officials to begin preparing more than 300 shelters. American Airlines - the island's chief lifeline to the U.S. mainland - announced it was canceling all flights into Puerto Rico on Monday.
On St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, residents rushed to supermarkets and waited in long lines at gas stations, remembering when Hur-ricane Hugo damaged 95 percent of the island's homes in 1989.
"I am totally bewildered," said Josiah Mercury as she hurriedly picked up crackers and bottled water at a supermarket. "The most I can do is prepare and take the warning seriously."
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency sent early response teams to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico before the storm.