– 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 rain in a town stunned by the deaths of a mother and four children, buried under an overnight mud slide that crushed their home.
Sandy edged away from Florida on Friday toward a paralyzing smash into the Northeast that experts fear could dwarf the $15 billion-plus in damages racked up by Hurricane Irene last year. But another disaster was still unfolding hundreds of miles south in Haiti, where Sandy’s long wet tail has draped itself over Hispaniola and might not move until the weekend.
Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection raised the death toll to 29 late Friday, a number that could climb in a poor country vulnerable to mudslides. That brought the number of deaths in the Caribbean to at least 42, including 11 in Cuba, one in Jamaica and one in the Bahamas.
But as other countries began to clean up, rain-socked Haiti was dealing with spiraling problems. Cholera cases were spreading, nearly 18,000 people were in shelters, at least four were missing and damage reports were still coming in.
“The situation is disastrous all over the country,” said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who issued an appeal for help and supplies, everything from flashlights to energy bars. “We are doing our best, but we need help to deal with this.”
At 11 p.m., Sandy remains a hurricane as it moves slowly northward away from the Bahamas with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm continued to degrade, just hanging on to it's Category 1 hurricane status. But forecasters cautioned the slight weakening won’t make a difference if Sandy behaves as expected, hooking up in a few days with an approaching cold front and morphing into a hybrid storm meteorologists have dubbed “Frankenstorm.’’
During a conference call, experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Sandy could produce unprecedented impacts 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 landfall, up to 8 inches elsewhere, along with coastal flooding from storm surge that could coincide with extreme high tides. West Virginia and bordering areas could see a foot of snow. Winds could top 50 mph.
James Franklin, chief of the NHC’s forecast division, said the slow-moving storm could spend two or three days over the Northeast, which would multiply flooding, power outages and damage.
“We’re looking at something bigger than Irene,” he said.
In South Florida, the weather began clearing by afternoon and the NHC dropped tropical storm watches. Emergency managers reported few problems, other than scattered power outages. Water managers reported no serious flooding from persistent but mostly light rains.
In Fort Lauderdale, storm surge 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 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 Florida and extended them to the coastlines of the Carolinas.
Sandy, which slammed 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.
Flooding continued to be a problem in Cuba. In Villa Clara province, heavy rain early Friday prompted the evacuation of 3,450 people who were transferred to the homes of family and friends. Although both Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus provinces are far from hard-hit Santiago and Holguin, flooding prompted highway closures. Cuban officials were still assessing damages, working on routes to get food, medicine and construction materials to eastern Cuba as quickly as possible, according to a report on Televisión Cubana.
The Bahamas were hard hit and The Associated Press reported a 66-year-old man died on Lyford Cay after falling from his roof Thursday while fixing a storm shutter. The worst damage was to Cat Island and Exuma, both hit by Sandy’s core, which left downed trees and power lines and battered homes. The Dominican Republic also reported flooding from the same stubborn outer bands parked over Haiti.
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, streaming thunderstorms over Southeast Florida and flooding portions of Palm Beach County.
Haiti, Feltgen 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. Rain could continue into Saturday, adding to mounting misery.
In Grand Goave where the mudslide had killed 40-year-old Jacqueline Tatille and her four children — two girls and two boys aged 5 to 17 — morgue deputy Joseph Franck Laporte worried he would have more work in coming days.
“If the rain continues, for sure we’ll have more people die,” Laporte told The Associated Press. “The earth cannot hold the rain.”
Several people called the hurricane far worse than Tropical Storm Isaac in August, which skirted Haiti but killed at least 24 people. Isaac mainly hit the southern portion of the country. Sandy’s damage could be seen everywhere.
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.”