Hurricane heads towards Florida

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HURRICANE GEORGES was heading for the Florida Keys last night, leaving a terrible trail of damage in its wake. The storm has devastated St Kitts and Nevis, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, leaving thousands homeless and doing billions of dollars of damage. Much of the cost will fall on British insurance companies.

St Kitts and Nevis, the smallest state in the Americas and a Commonwealth member, was crushed by 150mph winds, said Jasmine Huggins, the islands' charge d'affaires in Washington. The damage was "catastrophic", the government said. There were 25,000 left homeless, and four killed.

Some 80 per cent of the islands' houses were damaged, and the government appealed for help last night from Britain and America. As well as help with rebuilding, "we need medical supplies, non-perishable fuel, generators and drinking water", Ms Huggins said. HMS Sheffield and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Black Rover were both providing support, including the use of the Sheffield's medical theatre. "They're giving help and assistance," said Commodore Derek Anthony, at the British Embassy in Washington. The islands had no electricity and their airport was shut down.

The Dominican Republic was also badly damaged, with 17 dead. Looters roamed the streets after the hurricane struck and two were shot dead by police. Four also died in Puerto Rico, nine perished as floodwaters hit Haiti, and two died in Antigua and Barbuda. The US Virgin Islands were cut off as telecommunications failed and hurricane watches were in effect last night for southern Florida, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands, a British dependency.

The storm seemed set to hit the eastern end of Cuba, and last night 200,000 people were evacuated from the island's most exposed provinces.

"What has enabled us to survive [previous disasters] is the unity of the revolutionary," said Fidel Castro as the country battened down the hatches. Last night, the centre of the storm was about 50 miles southeast of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and nearly 600 miles southeast of Key West in Florida.

The White House spokes-man Mike McCurry quoted a senior US disaster management official as saying that it could be the worst storm to hit the area in 50 years. Governor Lawton Chiles declared a state of emergency in southern and central parts of the state, and 100,000 were evacuated from the Keys to the mainland.

Billions of dollars of losses, mainly in Puerto Rico, were expected, even before the storm hit Florida. Of this, only a fraction was insured but even so, insurance losses were expected to exceed $1 billion for the Caribbean alone, said Risk Management Solutions of California. One of the largest insurance companies in the region is the British-based Royal and Sun Alliance.

The worst hurricane to hit southern Florida was Andrew in 1992, which caused losses of some $30 billion. Hurricane Hugo, which hit the Caribbean in 1989, caused insured losses of $1.2 billion before it hit South Carolina, doing another $3 billion damage.