Tropical Storm Chris threatens to become first Atlantic hurricane of the season |

Tropical Storm Chris threatens to become first Atlantic hurricane of the season

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Tropical Storm Chris swept through the eastern Caribbean on Wednesday, forcing cruise ships to change course and tourists to evacuate small islands off the coast of Puerto Rico as it threatened to become the first hurricane of the Atlantic season.The storm had top sustained winds of 60 mph as it moved west-northwest past Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Outer bands of the swirling storm began to dump heavy rains on the U.S. Virgin Islands Wednesday evening.A hurricane watch was issued in the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the National Hurricane Center said. The watch meant hurricane conditions of winds of at least 74 mph were possible by late Thursday.Some 600 tourists evacuated Culebra and Vieques, islands off Puerto Rico’s east coast.”Everybody left,” said Jacinto Jiminez, owner of a hotel on Culebra.The center of the storm was about 100 miles north-northeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands Wednesday night. The storm was generally moving toward the west-northwest at 8 mph, forecasters reported.Forecasters said it was likely to strengthen and could hit anywhere from south of Cuba to Florida by late this weekend.Royal Caribbean, the cruise line operator, said it was changing the itineraries of three ships – the Navigator of the Seas, the Explorer of the Seas and the Freedom of the Seas – to keep them clear of the storm.”Royal Caribbean will continue to closely monitor weather conditions,” the company said.Trevor Basden, senior meteorologist with the Bahamas’ National Emergency Management Agency, said he expected Chris to strengthen into a weak hurricane as it passed through the island chain. He said the storm was likely to reach the Bahamas on Friday morning.Bahamian officials advised people to stock up on water and canned food and be prepared to take precautions – such as boarding up their houses – if the storm reaches hurricane strength.There were no reports of major damage or injuries as the storm skirted the Leeward Islands.In Anguilla, Chris brought heavy rain and strong winds overnight but the storm was much less severe than expected because it shifted to the north at the last minute, said Elizabeth Klute, director of the disaster management agency for the British Caribbean territory.”It just kind of skirted us,” Klute said. “It’s moving on.”Islanders in Antigua and St. Maarten awoke to a light rain. There were no reports of major flooding or other damage.The first named storm of the 2006 season, Tropical Storm Alberto, swept over Florida in mid-June, then plowed northward along the U.S. coast past the Outer Banks. It was blamed for one death.Last year’s hurricane season was the worst in more than 150 years of record-keeping. A record number of tropical storms and hurricanes formed, including the devastating Hurricane Katrina.—Associated Press writers John Pain in Miami, Marvin Hokstam in St. Maarten, Colin James in Antigua and Clive Bacchus in St. Kitts contributed to this report.

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