(MCT) — MIAMI — After slamming eastern Cuba early Thursday as a bigger, stronger and deadlier storm than expected, Hurricane Sandy churned toward what could be a wicked Halloween eve visit to the northeastern United States from a massive hybrid weather system quickly dubbed “Franken-storm.”
Sandy was weakening but still expected to generate at least one more day of nasty weather across South Florida, with storms and tropical storm-force gusts brushing the coast Friday — conditions bad enough for many schools in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to cancel classes. (Friday was already a teacher work-day in Dade and Broward public schools.)
But the state will likely escape mostly unscathed from a hurricane that left a growing death toll and a trail of collapsed buildings and bridges, shredded roofs, ruined crops and flooded hospitals across three Caribbean countries and the Bahamas. The death count leapt to 21 on Thursday — one in Jamaica, 11 in Cuba, and nine in Haiti, which endured another day of nonstop rain, flooding and mudslides.
In Cuba, the dead included a 4-month-old boy and an 84-year-old-man, according to state-run television.
Reading a report from Cuba’s Civil Defense, an announcer on Cuba’s nightly newscast said nine of the deaths were in Santiago province and the other two in Guantánamo. Most of the deaths occurred, according to the newscasts, when homes collapsed.
Bands of rain from Sandy were still affecting central and eastern Cuba Thursday night, causing flooding along the southern coast of Guantánamo province. Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology said flooding was also expected on the north coast from Holguín to Villa Clara. Civil defense Col. Miguel Angel Puig said Sandy’s intense rain could affect 200,000 people in Cuba.
At 11 p.m. EDT on Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said the storm, looked more ragged. Its sustained winds fell to 90-mph, Category 1 strength, as it passed Eleuthera Island in the northwestern Bahamas.
In Cuba, the heaviest damage appeared to be in the Holguín province and the historic city of Santiago de Cuba, close to where Sandy intensified in the hours just before roaring ashore at the Mar Verde beach area as a powerful Category 2 storm with estimated 115 mph winds.
Residents emerged Thursday to survey widespread damage: flattened or partially collapsed homes in some areas, smashed windows in tall buildings, splintered power poles and roads blocked by debris. There were no confirmed reports of deaths.
A damage report broadcast Thursday on Cubavisión, Cubavisión Internacional and Radio Habana Cuba showed Holguín residents wading through waist-deep water trying to salvage items from flooded homes and hundreds of bags of sodden flour inside a Santiago food warehouse that had lost its roof. Television towers and power poles were left splintered.
Ado San, a journalist reporting from Santiago, said, “The panorama here is very difficult, very sad, very hard.”
José Rubiera, head forecaster at Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology, called the damage “grave,” saying that Sandy had defied typical behavior as it crossed Cuba’s mountainous terrain.
“The curious thing is that Sandy scarcely weakened” as it crossed the Sierra Maestra, he said. At La Gran Piedra, a 63,000-ton boulder perched above the Caribbean just east of Santiago, he said wind gusts of up to 152 mph were recorded.
“The hurricane really hit us hard,” Norje Pupo, a 66-year-old retiree in Holguín told The Associated Press as he helped his son remove a downed tree in the garden. “As you can see, we were very affected. The houses are not poorly made here, but some may have been damaged.”
Cuba’s Civil Defense said damages were being assessed in the three hardest hit provinces — Santiago de Cuba, Holguín and Guantánamo — and that vital services would be reestablished as soon as possible. Radio Rebelde, the state-controlled station, reported that President Raúl Castro expected to visit the hard-hit region soon. Castro said he sent a “message of hope to Santiagueros” and asked residents to “have confidence in the Revolution because it won’t leave anyone abandoned.”
At the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo, crews were cleaning up after Sandy took out the power, damaged some windows, took out a pier and damaged sailboats used by sailors.
In Haiti, government officials were still assessing damages but information coming into the United Nations Stabilization Mission painted a grim picture in a country still reeling from Tropical Storm Isaac in August.
A second day of relentless rains brought down a bridge and a cholera treatment center, triggered landslides and flooded hospitals and homes. Some roadways remained impassable, leaving communities cut off.
Edgard Celestin, a spokesman for the disaster office, reported a sharp increase in the death toll from two on Wednesday. Overall, nine people have died in Haiti: five in the hard-hit southern region, three in the west and one in Grand Anse.
In Jamaica, authorities reported downed trees and power lines and half the island was without power. At least one death was reported on the island, a man crushed by a boulder.
Jack Bevan, a senior hurricane specialist at the NHC, said Sandy surprised forecasters by quickly gaining power in the short crossing between Jamaica and Cuba, its sustained winds jumping 15 to 20 mph in the hours just before landfall in Cuba. Such rapid intensifications remain difficult to predict, he said, and it happened despite Sandy crossing mountainous Jamaica and enduring increasing wind shear that frequently weakens storms.
Bevan, who wrote the NHC advisory as Sandy neared Cuba, had cautioned that Sandy could intensify — but it “strengthened significantly faster than we thought.”
IN SOUTH FLORIDA
Sandy’s pounding waves continued to erode beaches along much of the coast and gusts of 40-mph-plus winds began causing some minor power outages in South Florida Thursday evening. But forecasters expect conditions to begin easing late Friday as Sandy leaves the Bahamas and begins to veer off the Florida coast. The National Weather Service’s Miami office predicts breezy but sunny weather for the weekend.
As winds drop in South Florida, however, there is increasing concern about the damage Sandy will inflict farther north when it reaches the Mid-Atlantic states, where it will meet frigid air shooting down from Canada and a winter storm sweeping to the east. Many meteorologists expect the systems to blend into a broad, messy monster that could bring 70 mph winds, extreme flooding tides, freezing rain and maybe even snow along much of the East Coast.
The center of the NHC’s track brings the remnants of Sandy to the New Jersey coast sometime Tuesday, a day before Halloween, but Bevan said anywhere from the coast of Virginia to Nova Scotia was potentially at risk.
“Even if it stays offshore, it’s got such a gigantic wind field that there are going to be widespread impacts,” he said.
Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, posted a caution on his Twitter account:
“If you live on the U.S. East Coast, keep an eye on this storm.”
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg reported from Guantánamo and staff writer Jacqueline Charles reported from Port -au-Prince. Staff writers Elinor Brecher and Charles Rabin also contributed to this story. Curtis Morgan and Mimi Whitefield are based in Miami.