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Tropical Storm Bertha dumps rain in east Caribbean, heads for Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Tropical Storm Bertha swirled through the eastern Caribbean on Friday night as it unleashed heavy rains and strong winds in the region, knocking out power on some islands.

The storm's maximum sustained winds held at 50 mph (85 kph), and no significant change in strength was expected over the next two days. Bertha was centred about 180 miles (295 kilometres) southeast of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and was moving west-northwest at 22 mph (35 kph) late Friday.

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

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

On Friday afternoon, Bertha passed just north of the French Caribbean island of Martinique, where officials had urged everyone to stay indoors.

Government spokeswoman Audrey Hamann said in a phone interview that power losses were reported in several parts of the island and that authorities were trying to restore electricity. She said some 150,000 homes were affected by outages but that no injuries or damage had been reported.

In Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit ordered all businesses closed by Friday afternoon to prepare for the storm, which left hundreds of people without power along the island's eastern region.

Antigua-based regional airline LIAT also cancelled several flights in Dominica and St. Lucia, while the U.S. Coast Guard said it was no longer allowing commercial vessels to enter ports in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The storm generated some rain and wind as it passed just north of Barbados earlier Friday, but no damage was reported, Judy Thomas, director of the island's emergency management agency, said in a phone interview.

Bertha was expected to generate up to 1 to 3 inches (2-8 centimetres) of rain across the eastern Caribbean, with isolated amounts of up to 5 inches (13 centimetres) in certain areas. Somewhat higher amounts were forecast for Puerto Rico, where a moderate drought has hit the island's southern region and a small portion in the northeast. More than half of the U.S. territory is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with the government reporting $20 million in crop losses.

Strict rationing measures are scheduled to go into effect starting Wednesday if the storm doesn't generate enough rain.

"Whether it falls where it needs to fall, that's still to be seen," said Jose Antonio Estrada, National Weather Service meteorologist.

He said the storm was moving quickly and its effects would be felt all day Saturday in Puerto Rico. Authorities closed El Yunque rainforest, a popular tourist attraction in northeast Puerto Rico, and ferry rides to the neighbouring islands of Culebra and Vieques were cancelled.

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 centimetres) that fell was still down from the average of 4.76 inches (12 centimetres).

___

Associated Press writer Carlisle Jno Baptiste in Roseau, Dominica, contributed to this report.

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