Puerto Rico braces as Tropical Storm Bertha nears



SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Tropical Storm Bertha pushed just south of Puerto Rico on Saturday as it unleashed heavy rains and strong winds across the region, knocking out power on some islands in the eastern Caribbean.

The storm's maximum sustained winds held at 50 mph (85 kph), and slow strengthening was expected by Sunday night. Bertha was centered about 110 miles (175 kilometers) west-southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico and was moving west-northwest at 22 mph (35 kph) Saturday afternoon.

The storm was expected to pass near southwest Puerto Rico and possibly over the eastern Dominican Republic on Saturday night. As much as 3 to 5 inches (8-13 centimeters) of rain was forecast for Puerto Rico, with isolated amounts of up to 8 inches (20 centimeters), with the heaviest rain likely in the island's eastern and southern regions.

Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla warned of flooding, landslides and swollen rivers, which he urged people not to try and cross.

"It's something that sounds obvious but it happens so often," he said. "It's not the time to take risks."

Police said a man is recovering after lightning struck next to him as he emerged from a tent in the northeast coastal town of Luquillo. Garcia initially had said the man was a surfer.

Authorities also reported several downed trees across the island's eastern region and two downed electrical posts. Some 9,000 people were without power and more than 1,300 without water. The lights also went out at the island's emergency management agency during a press conference Saturday morning.

Officials said some 180 people remained at a shelter in the southeast coastal town of Arroyo, the majority of them athletes participating in a youth baseball tournament.

Ingrid Vila, gubernatorial chief of staff, said Puerto Rico's main international airport remained open but that several flights have been cancelled.

Authorities closed El Yunque rainforest, a popular tourist attraction in northeast Puerto Rico, and ferry rides to the neighboring islands of Culebra and Vieques were cancelled.

Downed trees limbs also were reported across St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where a coastal buoy south of St. Thomas recorded wind gusts of 72 mph (115 kph).

Tropical storm warnings were in effect for Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, the eastern Dominican Republic, southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands. A tropical storm watch was in effect for central Bahamas.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic banned vessels from operating along the country's east coast, which is popular with tourists. The sun shone brightly there ahead of the storm, but those who ferry hundreds of tourists a day to the nearby island of Saona remained cautious.

"Our fear was to take customers and then have the storm trap them on the island," said Davis de la Cruz, marketing manager for tourism company Caribbean Saona.

On Friday, Bertha passed just north of the French Caribbean island of Martinique, where it knocked out power in several areas. Government spokeswoman Audrey Hamann said in a phone interview that some 150,000 homes were affected by outages but that no injuries or damage were reported.

In Dominica, the storm left hundreds of people without power along the island's eastern region.

Antigua-based regional airline LIAT canceled several flights in Dominica, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Seaborne Airlines also canceled flights in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, while the U.S. Coast Guard closed ports in the U.S. Virgin Islands and eastern and southern Puerto Rico.

The storm may bring rain to a drought-hit area of southern Puerto Rico

Strict rationing measures are scheduled to go into effect starting Wednesday if the storm doesn't generate enough rain. Government officials said hundreds of thousands of people living in and near the capital of San Juan would receive water every other day.

It rained less than an inch in June in Puerto Rico, compared with the month's average of more than 4 inches. July saw more rain, but the 3.40 inches (8.64 centimeters) that fell was still down from the average of 4.76 inches (12 centimeters).


Associated Press writers Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Carlisle Jno Baptiste in Roseau, Dominica, contributed to this report.