A strengthening Tropical Storm Sandy, set to slam Jamaica as a dangerous and drenching Category 1 hurricane, also promises to bring foul weather to South Florida in coming days.
Early Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center placed much of Southeast Florida, from the Middle Keys to Jupiter, under a tropical storm watch. While Sandy’s most damaging winds were expected to remain offshore, its sprawling outer bands could sweep the South Florida coast Thursday and Friday as it churns through the Bahamas. The forecast for South Florida calls for blustery weather: 25- to 35-mph winds, with gusts to 50 mph, as well as pounding, beach-chewing waves and fast-moving thunderstorms.
NOT TAKING CHANCES
The impact could be worse in Jamaica and eastern Cuba, both under hurricane warnings for the late-season storm. At 8 a.m., the hurricane center said Sandy had 70 mph sustained winds, just on the cusp of hurricane strength, and located 95 miles south of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city.
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Across Jamaica, already experiencing pelting rains and howling winds, poor people in ramshackle shantytowns and wealthier residents alike were worried. Many sections of the debt-shackled country have crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of building codes has resulted in some middle-class homes and tin-roofed shacks being built close to steep embankments and gullies vulnerable to flash floods and mudslides.
In the hilly community of Kintyre, near the capital of Kingston, Sharon Gayle and a few of her drenched neighbors expected to lose the town’s bridge over the Hope River, which washed away a section of the span just three weeks ago during a heavy downpour.
"We’ve gotten cut off here a whole heap of times. But with a big nasty hurricane on the way, I’m really nervous. We’re trying not to show it in front of the children though," said the mother of three, huddling under a sopping white towel as she stared at the rising river.
Kingston’s streets were jammed on Tuesday as residents rushed to stock up on food, fill gas tanks and pick up children at schools closed early for the approaching storm.
In the northeastern parish of Portland, resident Ryan Amos joined neighbors in stocking up on canned goods and supplies. He was bracing for a direct hit from a storm that forecasters said could dump six to 12 inches across much of the mountainous island, with 20 inches or more in spots — volumes that have triggered deadly river overflows, flash floods and mudslides in past storms.
“Portland has a tendency to have massive floods throughout the parish,” Amos said. “The sense that I am getting is that people fear that this storm is going to hit us directly and no one is taking any chances.”
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said Sandy was likely to continue to intensify for at least one more day before it begins to encounter strong wind shear that could weaken it. The storm, moving north at 14 mph, was on track to pass over central Jamaica later Wednesday, likely as a Category 1 hurricane with 80 mph winds, and remain a hurricane as it hits eastern Cuba later in the night.
Jamaica’s two international airports prepared to close, cruise ships changed their itineraries and police ordered 48-hour curfews in major towns to keep people off the streets and deter looting as the late-season storm was expected to rake Jamaica from south to north at midday.
Across the country, curfews were imposed in rough slums and business centers, including the New Kingston financial district and the resort town of Montego Bay.
To deter looters and other criminals, Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds warned that police "will react swiftly to protect life and property." Outside its placid tourist resorts, the island has long struggled with high crime and gang violence.
Elsewhere, the government of Cuba issued a hurricane warning for much of eastern Cuba including Guantánamo. Tropical storm warnings were posted for Haiti and the Central and Southeastern Bahamas, where Sandy was bound for by Thursday.
Though its “dirty side” and strongest winds will be well out to sea, forecasters said South Florida also will feel at least some ripple effect from the storm, with the impact depending on how large Sandy’s wind field grows and how close it tracks to South Florida.
From there, Sandy’s future is less certain, said hurricane center forecaster Todd Kimberlain, with computer models at the moment split on whether it turns harmlessly out into the cooler Atlantic as a broad “extra-tropical” storm or veers more toward the upper East Coast as a major and potentially damaging “nor’easter” storm. The official track calls for the path out into the Atlantic.
Jamaica hasn’t been hit directly by a hurricane since Gilbert in 1988 but the island has endured a string of damaging and deadly strikes over the last decade, including a battering close call from Ivan in 2004 and impacts from tropical storms in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Sandy’s projected track across the middle of the island could expose the waterfront capital city to damaging storm surge and the government ordered a mandatory evacuation of residents in many low-lying areas. The island’s two major airports were also ordered closed by Wednesday morning. Jamaica’s Meteorological Service also advised fishermen on Pedro Cays, small islands off the southern coast, to evacuate but the warnings were ignored by many.
In Haiti, puddles were already developing in the streets of flood-prone Les Cayes but the government wasn’t yet anticipating ordering the large-scale evacuations conducted during Tropical Storm Isaac.
Rain was expected across much of the country, including in rural communities in the northwest, where the ground is already saturated and more rain could isolate communities and ruin crops.
Edgar Celestin, a spokesman with Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection, said the operations center would be activated Wednesday.
Tropical Storm Tony also formed late Wednesday in the mid-Atlantic. The 19th named storm of the year posed no threat to land but tied 2012 with four other years — 2011, 2010, 1995 and 1887 — for the third-most named storms on record.
Miami Herald correspondent Daraine Luton reported from Kingston and Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles reported from Port-au-Prince. This report was supplemented with material from The Associated Press.