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Jason

Jeanne lashing Puerto Rico

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TROPICAL Storm Jeanne neared hurricane strength today as it slammed into Puerto Rico where rivers rose, fields flooded and frantic residents evacuated from low-lying areas in the US territory where dozens of tourists were stranded.

Lashing rains and winds blew plants off terraces and felled trees as the storm's eye made landfall on the southeastern tip of the island this afternoon.

"The biggest concern for Puerto Rico is flashflooding and mudslides," said Hector Guerrero, a meteorologist at the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami.

Streets in the tourist hub of colonial Old San Juan were deserted and most flights had been cancelled. The largest mall in the Caribbean - Plaza las Americas - was also shut and Governor Sila Calderon prohibited alcohol sales for the day to keep citizens alert.

Guests were being moved to lower floors and no alcohol was being served because of the governor's order, said Ediberto Rodriguez, a spokesman for Hotel El Convento in San Juan.

Some 30,000 islanders in Puerto Rico's northeast tip had already lost water because of the storm and more than 1000 people were without electricity.

Nearly 800 people had evacuated and were staying in shelters throughout Puerto Rico.

"In the past year, we've lost everything in floods," said Francisco Santiago, one of 10 people who took refuge at a shelter in Yabucoa in the southeast where more than five centimetres of rain has fallen and strong bursts of wind were being felt.

Carnival Cruise Lines diverted four ships because of Jeanne, said spokesman Vance Gullicksen. Disney Cruise Line diverted the Disney Magic to Nassau, Bahamas, instead of St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, said spokeswoman Rena Langley.

Jeanne, which is expected to become a hurricane, is headed on a track toward the island of Hispaniola where floods in May killed more than 3000, and the Bahamas - an island chain of more than 700 islands that was battered recently by Hurricane Frances.

At 11am (1am AEST), Jeanne's centre was 75km south-southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Maximum sustained winds strengthened to 100km/h, just 7km/h short of a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on a scale of five.

Jeanne became the 10th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season Tuesday and was moving west-northwest near 13 kph.

"It just never stops!" said Merce Roca, a real estate agent in the old colonial section of San Juan where she spent hours bolting her mansion's large wooden doors and pulling tropical plants in from her courtyard. "It seems like we've been doing this every day."

In the past two weeks, the region has seen three major hurricanes - Charley, Frances and the deadliest of them all, Ivan, which killed 68 people in the Caribbean. Ivan was near the mouth of the Mississippi River, threatening to hit the US mainland tomorrow.

Shell Chemicals shut a petrochemical refinery in Yabacoa because of the storm.

Passenger ferry service to Puerto Rico's outlying tourist islands of Vieques and Culebra was suspended, authorities said. Government offices and courts were closed in Puerto Rico.

Between 10-25cm of rainfall was expected in Puerto Rico, which last was struck by Hurricane Georges in 1998.

Some 50,000 lost power in St Croix, the southernmost of the US Virgin Islands, which the storm passed overnight, officials said. Airports in the US Virgin Islands remained closed.

"It's inconvenient ... but it's the Caribbean and it's hurricane season," said Len Fagan, 56, of Boston, who was in the US Virgin Islands on a business trip.

Hurricane Marilyn caused major damage to the US Virgin Islands nine years ago on Wednesday. In some areas of Charlotte Amalie, storm drains were overflowing. The US Virgin Islands emergency management agency gave sandbags to residents in low-lying areas and told them to be prepared to evacuate.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin islands. A hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning was also in effect for the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, and a tropical storm warning remained in effect for the British Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Nevis.

Heavy rains associated with Jeanne lashed the British Virgin Islands Tuesday night, causing minor landslides across hilly areas. Debris covered sections of roads in Tortola.

Separately, more than 20 fishermen who failed to evacuate a small chain of islets off Jamaica's south coast before the onslaught of Hurricane Ivan remain missing, authorities said.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially began June 1 and ends on November 30.

-By Frank Griffiths in San Juan, The Associated Press

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