GRAND GOAVE, HAITI -- Mud gushed down from mountains, boulders barreled into highways and bedraggled residents waded through chest-deep flooding to get to homes under water.
As Hurricane Sandy drenched Haiti for a fourth day, a weary country wondered when the rain would finally end.
"We weren't prepared. No one was prepared," said Rose-Marie Lapotose, 40, walking through the pelting rain in the rural Morne Ricodo section of a town stunned by the death of a mother and four children, crushed under an overnight landslide.
Sandy edged away from Florida on Friday toward a potentially paralyzing smash into the Northeast that many experts fear could dwarf the $15 billion-plus in damages racked up when Hurricane Irene slammed the same area last year. But another disaster was still unfolding hundreds of miles to the south in Haiti, where Sandy's long wet tail has draped itself over the island of Hispaniola and may not move into the weekend.
Haiti's Office of Civil Protection raised the death toll to 26, a number that could climb in a poor country with denuded terrain vulnerable to mudslides. That brought Sandy's death toll in the Caribbean to at least 39, including 11 in Cuba, one in Jamaica and one in the Bahamas.
"The situation is disastrous all over the country. It's a major disaster," said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who issued an appeal to the international community for help. "We are doing our best, but we need help to deal with this."
At 5 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said Sandy was continuing to degrade, just hanging on to Category 1 hurricane strength with 75 mph sustained winds. But forecasters cautioned that the slight weakening won't
make much of a difference if Sandy behaves as expected, hooking up in a few days with an approaching cold blast from Canada and morphing into a hybrid nor'easter that meteorologists have dubbed "Frankenstorm."
During a conference call Friday, experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Sandy had the potential to have an unprecedented impact across hundreds of miles from the Carolinas to New England.
"We are dealing with categories here that we don't normally see," said Louis Uccellini, NOAA's environmental prediction director.
The forecast was dismal: 10 inches of rain near Sandy's landfall and up to 8 inches in surrounding areas, along with coastal flooding from storm surge that could be timed with extreme high tides. West Virginia and surrounding areas could see more than a foot of snow. Winds across much of the area could top 50 mph.
James Franklin, chief of the NHC's forecast division, said the slow-moving storm could take two or three days to pass over the Northeast, which would add to flooding, power outages and damage,
"We're looking at something bigger than Irene," he said.
In South Florida, the dreary weather began to clear by the afternoon and the NHC dropped the tropical storm watch for Miami-Dade, Broward and the Keys. Emergency managers in the three counties reported few problems, other than scattered and mostly minor power outages from downed lines. Water managers reported no flooding concerns from persistent but mostly light rains with sporadic stronger cells.
There were some more serious impacts. In Fort Lauderdale, storm surge and waves spilled over the dunes and left a section of A1A near Sunrise Boulevard in a calf-deep sluice of sea water and sand. Chuck Lanza, Broward County's emergency director, said the water had retreated and crews were clearing the road.
"That's the only thing we've seen," he said.
In Stuart, the Palm Beach Post reported that high surf had washed sand out from under the garage of a waterfront home, collapsing the building and leaving two cars, a 2006 Mercedes and a 2013 Mercedes, in a deep hole, sloshing with sea water.
With Sandy expected to crawl north with an expanding swath of gale-force winds, the NHC left up tropical storm watches and warnings for much of the state and extended them to the coastlines of the Carolinas as well.
Sandy, which slammed in eastern Cuba near Santiago as a powerful Category 2 hurricane with 115 mph winds has left a trail of death and damage along its path. Cuba reported 11 deaths and Jamaica one, while in the Bahamas, one death was reported by the Associated Press. Police on Lyford Cay said a 66-year-old man died after falling from his roof Thursday while fixing a storm shutter. The Dominican Republic also reported flooding from the same stubborn outer bands parked over Hispaniola.
Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the NHC, said the band of thunderstorms hanging over Haiti hundreds of miles from Sandy's core was the typical outflow for a large hurricane pulling deep tropical moisture in its wake. Tropical Storm Isaac in August produced the same effect, training thunderstorms over Southeast Florida and flooding portions of Palm Beach County.
Haiti, he said, just happened to be in the worst place for it, on the east side of a storm that had slowed off South Florida before an anticipated turn. The rain, he said, could continue into Saturday, adding to mounting misery across the country.
Roosevelt Guerrier, a government representative in the city of Les Cayes, said the nonstop deluge has devastated his city. Several people called the hurricane, which struck Jamaica and only grazed Haiti, far worse than Isaac in August, which killed at least 24 people but did most of its damage in the southern portion of the country.
But unlike Isaac, which mostly affected the southeast, Sandy's damage could be seen everywhere in Haiti.
In neighboring Leogane, three overflowing rivers and rain had filled homes with water the color of chocolate.
Ricardo Toussaint, 26, stood on the roadside surveying the extensive flooding and said he was tired of enduring the same disasters year after years.
"We need dredging and retaining walls," he said. "From the time they announce hurricane season, we know this will be the case. This is all we know."