Hurricane Sandy raked the Bahamas on Thursday after slamming Santiago de Cuba overnight as a powerful Category 2, 115-mph storm and leaving a growing trail of collapsed buildings, flooded towns and at least four people dead in the Caribbean.
Sandy pushed fast-moving storms and palm-ruffling gusts across much of South Florida, conditions expected to continue through Friday. Despite Sandy emerging from Cuba stronger than expected, with top sustained winds still at 105 mph at 2 p.m., the National Hurricane Center expected the worst winds to remain off the Florida coast. But it appeared increasingly likely that the East Coast, anywhere from North Carolina to New England, might not be so fortunate early next week.
Sandy appeared to do its heaviest damage in eastern Cuba, where it struck at the Mar Verde beach area not far from Santiago de Cuba in the early morning hours and ripped through the historic city and across the island.
Jose Rubiera, the islands chief meteorologist, told CBS News the impacts in Eastern Cuba were grave.
It crossed the entire eastern region practically without losing intensity or structure," he said.
The Cuban News Agency (ACN) reported hundreds of trees were uprooted, electric poles were down and roof tiles sailed through the air in Santiago de Cuba, the largest city in eastern Cuba with a population of more than 1 million. Photos posted on the Internet showed buildings and homes with collapsed walls, and several media outlets also reported at least one death.
ACN also said there were reports that 30-foot waves broke over seawalls in Siboney and sloshed more than 100 feet inland.
Norje Pupo, a 66-year-old retiree in Holguin helped his son clean up early Thursday after an enormous tree toppled over in his garden.
The hurricane really hit us hard, he told The Associated Press. As you can see, we were very affected. The houses are not poorly made here, but some may have been damaged.
Radio Rebelde, the state-controlled station, reported Thursday that President Raúl Castro said he expected to visit eastern Cuba soon. He also said he sent a message of hope to Santiagueros and asked that residents have confidence in the Revolution because it wont leave anyone abandoned.
At the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo, power went out overnight as Sandy swept through, though the hospital functioned on generator power. The military canceled Thursdays war court hearing in the death-penalty case against Abd al Rahim al Nashiri accused of masterminding al-Qaidas October 2000 suicide bombing in Yemen due to damage at the $12 million war-court compound.
In Jamaica, where authorities were only beginning to assess the extent of damage, there was coastal flooding around the capital city of Kingston and many communities across the country were cut off by downed trees and power lines and overflowing rivers. At least one death was reported on the island, a man crushed by a boulder.
In Haiti, there also was widespread flooding and at least two deaths, including one woman who drowned crossing a swollen river. In Cuba, tourists were evacuated from at least one hotel as residents boarded up for the storm.
The NHC extended tropical storm watches and warnings along almost the entire Florida east coast from the Middle Keys to Fernandina Beach at the Florida-Georgia line. Though Sandys projected path through the Bahamas was expected to keep the strongest winds of the storms dirty side well offshore, forecasters said the storms expanding wind field could brush the South Florida coast with tropical storm force gusts.
With the strongest winds forecast for Palm Beach County up to 34 mph sustained and gusts near 50 the school district decided to close schools early Thursday and cancel classes Friday. Miami-Dade and Broward planned to follow regular schedules (early release was previously scheduled), although Broward canceled outdoor events both days.
The forecast for Miami-Dade and Broward called for foul weather, with the worst coming Thursday night and Friday: steady winds up to 30 mph with gusts to the mid-40s, 15-foot swells and heavy surf that could cause beach erosion and strong thunderstorms.
In Cuba, the government announced the evacuation of about 450 tourists from beach resorts near Santiago, according to Cuban state media, though hotel workers told The Associated Press they were not expecting any major problems.
Sandy is a complex system of strong rains, very intense, said civil defense Col. Miguel Angel Puig, adding that the rains could affect 200,000 people in Cuba.
In Jamaica, where Sandy made landfall at 3 p.m. Wednesday near the densely populated capital of Kingston, damage was mounting. The Associated Press, citing police, said at least one person had been killed, an elderly man crushed by a boulder that rolled over his clapboard house.
Storm surge and heavy seas swamped waterfront homes in the eastern Kingston neighborhood of Caribbean Terrace and the road to Kingstons major airport. Flood water breached rivers and retaining walls, cutting off some communities, including Kintyre in the St. Andrew Parish, according to The Daily Gleaner newspaper. In St. Mary Parish on the northern coast, directly under Sandys fierce core, resident Pamella Simms said power was out well before the storm reached the coast.
Several trees have fallen and many houses have lost their roofs. And we are in darkness, Simms said.
In Portland, another eastern parish prone to flooding, several roads were already impassable, blocked by landslides and downed trees, and flood waters were rising. With six inches to a foot of rain projected across the mountainous island, and up to 20 inches in spots, flash floods and mudslides remained a threat. We are just recovering from the effects of heavy rains a few weeks ago, and here comes Sandy, said Rackell Wilson, a nurse who lives in the area.
For Haiti, the rain-laden storm triggered extensive flooding. Rivers were rising across the country. Farms were under water in Ille a Vache, a small island off the southwestern tip of Haiti. Homes were flooded in the fishing village of Tiburon and in the southwestern city of Les Cayes, where 50 patients were evacuated from a hospital along with 200 residents in a seaside settlement.
One woman was reported killed in the southern town of Camp Perin as she crossed a rising river, said Edgard Celestin, spokesman for the Office of Civil Protection.
Marie-Alta Jean Baptiste, director of the Office of Civil Protection, urged residents to stay away from rivers to prevent any additional deaths.
The South Florida Water Management District was preparing for heavy rains and potential flooding, although no repeat of the deluge from Tropical Storm Isaac was expected. Southeast Florida already has received near-record amounts of rain this year.
Robert Molleda, a meteorologist with the National Weather Services Miami office, said storms could produce between one and three inches of rain but probably not across the entire region. Its going to be a close call whether any substantial rain bands do make it on shore, he said.
Once it clears the Bahamas late Friday, Sandys future is less certain, but computer models lean toward impact on the U.S. East Coast.