Hurricane Sandy began what could be a long and damaging march out of the Caribbean on Wednesday, leaving Jamaica soaked by pounding seas, intense rains and widespread flooding. In northern Haiti, one person died while crossing a swollen river.
Next up: eastern Cuba overnight, then the Bahamas and — at least potentially — the Northeast United States where some computer models predict Sandy could lose its tropical characteristics but still morph into a monster “nor’easter’’ slamming the coast sometime next week.
Florida, fortunately, was expected to dodge a direct hit and serious disruption from Sandy. The National Hurricane Center placed much of the coastline from the Middle Keys to Flagler Beach under tropical storm warnings and watches. Forecasters don’t expect Sandy to grow stronger after crossing Cuba but its wind field could expand enough for outer bands to brush South Florida. Still, its projected path through the Bahamas should keep the strongest winds of its “dirty side” well offshore.
The forecast for South Florida calls for foul, dreary weather, with the worst coming Thursday night and Friday: steady 25- to 35-mph winds with gusts to 50 mph, 15-foot swells and heavy surf that could cause serious beach erosion and strong but fast-moving thunderstorms.
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In Jamaica, where Sandy made landfall at 3 p.m. with 80 mph winds near the densely populated capital of Kingston, the damage was mounting but there were no initial reports of death or serious injuries.
Storm surge and heavy seas swamped waterfront homes in the eastern Kingston neighborhood of Caribbean Terrace and the road to Kingston’s 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 Sandy’s fierce core, resident Pamella Simms said power was out and things were falling apart well before the storm reached the coast.
“Several trees have fallen and many houses have lost their roofs. And we are in darkness,” she said.
In Portland, another eastern parish prone to flooding, several roads were already impassable, blocked by landslides and downed trees, and much more rain was expected. With six inches to a foot projected across the mountainous island, and up to 20 inches in spots, flash floods and mudslides remained a potentially deadly 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. “We are just hoping and praying for the best.”
In Haiti, Sandy’s rain-laden outer bands 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 had to be 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 was crossing 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.”
In South Florida, there were no plans to close schools or shut down airports. Public school classes in Miami-Dade and Broward were set to continue as normal on Thursday, though it is a half-day for students. Friday is a teacher work day in both counties so students will have no class. Broward’s school district cancelled all school-related outdoor activities on both days.
The South Florida Water Management District also was preparing for heavy rains and potential flooding, though 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 Service’s Miami office, said storms could produce between one and three inches of rain — but probably not across the entire region.
“It’s going to be a close call whether any substantial rain bands do make it on shore,” he said.
At the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, no evacuations were planned but sirens wailed across the base warning of coming dangerous winds and guards moved some prisoners from a wood hut to a more hurricane-proof steel and cement building.
Sailors made preparations while an Army colonel went forward with a pre-trial hearing in the death-penalty case against Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 47. The Pentagon accuses the one-time millionaire from Mecca of masterminding al Qaida’s October 2000 suicide bombing in Yemen of the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors.
The base also grounded flights, halting a USO shuttle carrying the actor who promotes Dos Equis beer on TV as “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
CBS News, meanwhile, reported that the Cuban government had ordered an evacuation of low-lying areas along the eastern coast and a clean-up of storm drainage systems in the area.
Once it clears the Bahamas late Friday, Sandy’s future is less certain. Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the hurricane center, said computer models remain split on whether it will turn harmlessly out into the cooler Atlantic Ocean or curve west toward the Northeast Coast as a still-powerful but nameless “extra-tropical’’ storm.
Jeff Masters, a widely followed meteorologist who co-founded the Weather Underground website, wrote Wednesday that the latest computer analyses suggest increasing risk of impacts to the U.S. or Canadian coastlines that could amount to a “potential billion-dollar storm.’’
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