President Bush sent federal authorities Wednesday to quell a wave of lawlessness that swept across the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, which aimed its deadly 110-mph winds toward the southeastern U.S. coast.
Naval vessels left port and relief teams and local officials began storm preparations in the area from northern Florida to the Carolinas, where the National Weather Service posted a hurricane watch Wednesday evening.
The watch area extended from St. Augustine, Fla., to Cape Hatteras, N.C. Residents of the area, the most likely target if the storm's lethal 110 mph winds reach the U.S. mainland as expected by late Thursday or early Friday, were urged to begin planning what actions they would take should a more serious alert -- a hurricane warning -- be issued.
Worried NASA managers ordered technicians to ready the Shuttle Atlantis for a hurried move from launch pad 39B in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to the safety of a hangar should Hugo veer more toward central Florida.
National Hurricane Center Director Bob Sheets said a warning would likely be posted sometime Thursday for at least a part of the watch area.
Hugo's top sustained winds reached nearly 110 mph late Wednesday, with little change in strength expected Thursday, though the warm open ocean waters were feeding new energy into the storm, hurricane center experts said.
'Looking at satellite pictures, the eye of the storm is coming back stronger,' meteorologist Jim Gross said. 'There might be some slight intensification. We don't expect it'll reach 140 mph, as it was when it hit the Virgin Islands.'
The northern Caribbean's mightiest hurricane in 10 years left at least 17 people dead and tens of thousands homeless in its passage across Puerto Rico and the West Indies earlier this week.
Unconfirmed reports from ham radio operators and other sources indicated the death toll from could rise to three dozen. More than 380 people are known to have been injured.
The president ordered military police and other Defense Department troops 'as are necessary' to restore order on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean hit by widespread looting since Hugo blew through.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the president also ordered more than 100 U.S. marshals and FBI agents into St. Croix by Thursday to protect federal property and personnel and enforce federal law.
Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Karonis, spokesman for the 7th U.S. Coast Guard District in Miami, said the situation on St. Croix was 'very dangerous.'
'We don't know who is in control of the island,' he said. 'There is widespread looting. There doesn't appear to be a form of control.'
The Coast Guard began an evacuation from St. Croix after several hundred people told a landing party they feared for their safety amid looting that police and National Guard troops were unable or unwilling to stop.
A ham radio operator in St. Croix reported that police and troops participated in the looting. Residents of the island told NBC News that they had no choice but to take what they needed to survive.
In a presidential proclamation, Bush said 'conditions of domestic violence and disorder exist in and about the Virgin Islands endangering the life and property and obstructing execution of the laws.'
Bush also declared the U.S. Virgin Islands a disaster area, qualifying residents for federal relief, and offered an immediate $500,000 for emergency supplies.
Fitzwater said the president also authorized the use of Defense Department personnel and supplies for unprecedented relief efforts in Puerto Rico, where the American Red Cross reported three-quarters of the population was without electricity and more than half the island was without water. Telephone service to Puerto Rico was out throughout the day.
Gasoline futures prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose more than 2 cents a gallon Wednesday as Amerada Hess Corp. entered the market in an effort to replace production lost at its refinery, one of the world's largest with a daily capacity of 545,000 barrels, on battered St. Croix. Hess said it hoped to restore the refinery to full operation in about 60 days.
By 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Hugo had bypassed the Bahamas at between 17 and 20 mph, its center located near latitude 27.4 north, longitude 73.6 west, or about 550 miles southeast of Savannah, Ga., meterologists at the hurricane center reported.
All hurricane warnings in the Bahamas were canceled as the massive storm sped by to the east. Watches remained in effect late Wednesday only on the northernmost islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco, where sea swells up to 5 feet and building wind gusts were reported.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 60 miles from Hugo's center and tropical storm-force winds whipped the ocean as far as 200 miles from the eye of the hurricane.
Playing it safe, NASA managers at Cape Canaveral, Fla., ordered technicians Wednesday to stop tests on the shuttle Atlantis and to ready the ship for a quick trip to a nearby hangar in case Hurricane Hugo veers toward central Florida, agency officials said.
Technicians at launch pad 39B had been in the process of conducting routine but critical pre-launch hydraulic tests Wednesday when the work-stoppage order was announced. One top manager said Atlantis's launch, currently planned for Oct. 12, likely will be delayed one or two days because of time already lost this week because of hurricane preparations.
Officially, however, blastoff remains scheduled for Oct. 12 and NASA spokeswoman Sarah Keegan said a final decision on whether to roll Atlantis away from the launch pad was to be made Thursday.
Atlantis is scheduled to blast off on the sixth post-Challenger mission to launch the Galileo probe, the most sophisticated interplanetary spacecraft ever built.
Emergency preparations were under way along the southeastern U.S. coast. In Myrtle Beach, chainsaws and bulldozers were placed in key positions throughout the resort as a precaution.
Ships docked at the naval base in Charleston, S.C., began moving out to sea Wednesday. The Navy said the ships will be safer in open water than at the docks.
South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell said he would order immediate evacuations of barrier islands and other coastal areas if the threat from the hurricane continued to intensify.
'I'd rather move too quickly and have people out than deal with it after the fact,' he said.
Red Cross hurricane watch centers opened in Florida and Georgia. Similar centers in South Carolina and North Carolina were placed on alert.
Keith Moncus, dock master at Hatteras Harbor Marina at Hatteras Village, N.C., was fatalistic about the approaching storm.
'It's something you take in stride, because you live here on the coast,' Moncus said. 'You accept it's going to happen eventually. When it happens, it happens.'
Tropical Storm Iris weakened Wednesday, but was expected to send severe thunderstorms on its southern fringe through northeastern Caribbean islands ravaged by Hugo earlier in the week.
Iris' maximum sustained winds were only 55 mph, and forecasters predicted Hugo's proximity would prevent Iris -- centered several hundred miles north northeast of Puerto Rico -- from strengthening greatly as it moved slowly to the west northwest.
'Iris is being weakened by Hugo,' Sheets said.
Relief flights and ships ferried supplies to the battered Caribbean islands. Reports from tiny Montserrat, a British island in the Lesser Antilles where there were six confirmed deaths, indicated it may have suffered the worst of Hugo's fury.
'The destruction on the island is complete,' said an American amateur radio operator relaying messages into and out of the island.
'Anything (that concerned friends and relatives) ask about is gone,' he said, adding that authorities on the island estimate it will take as long as three months to restore telephone service.
'It's gone from end to end,' he said. 'There is nothing left. They're going to have to start from scratch.'
At the request of the State Deparment, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Dauntless will carry 200 American students from Montserrat to Antigua, the Coast Guard said Wednesday. The Dauntless was en route to Montserrat carrying relief supplies from Barbados.
More than 12,000 hurricane victims were in Red Cross shelters throughout Puerto Rico, the organization said. Nearly 8,000 of those were in 100 shelters in San Juan.
A British Red Cross relief flight was expected in Antigua Wednesday evening with 15,000 blankets, 450 rolls of plastic, 10 water storage containers and 2 million water purification tablets.
In Puerto Rico, the Red Cross and the Coast Guard confirmed four people died -- one by a downed power line in advance of the storm, two in a boating accident near San Juan harbor and a fourth who was hit by a piece of flying debris on the island's southeastern part.
There were five confirmed deaths in Guadeloupe and two in St. Croix, as well as more than two dozen unconfirmed deaths throughout the Caribbean. Others were reported missing on land and at sea.
A ham radio operator broadcasting from Christiansted on St. Croix estimated 75 percent of the homes on the island were destroyed or sustained severe damage, such as torn-off roofs.
'There is literally no place for them to stay,' he said of the residents of the damaged homes.
Karonis of the Coast Guard described the situation on the island as one of 'total disorder.'
Evacuees from St. Croix were being placed aboard six Coast Guard patrol boats and a cutter waiting offshore, said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Simpson in Washington. The boats can accommodate several hundred people, he said. The Coast Guard was prepared to use a C-130 aircraft on nearby Puerto Rico to evacuate additional people if necessary.
Karonis said Coast Guard personnel on St. Croix were armed.
'Our people are going to protect themselves and the people they are trying to evacuate,' he said. Simpson said he did not know if the Coast Guard forces were attempting to restore order.
The government of St. Kitts and Nevis, in the Leeward Islands, reported that about 20 percent of the nation's population was homeless, that there was no electrical power, water supplies were contaminated and food shortages were severe.