A strengthening Tropical Storm Sandy, set to slam Jamaica on Wednesday as a dangerous and drenching Category 1 hurricane, also promises to bring foul weather to South Florida in coming days.
While Sandy's most damaging winds were expected to remain offshore, its sprawling outer bands were expected to brush closely enough that the National Hurricane Center expected to place the Florida Keys and Southeast Florida under a tropical storm watch by the morning.
As Sandy churns through the Bahamas Thursday and Friday, forecasters at the National Weather Service's Miami office said it could spin off 25- to 35-mph winds, with gusts to 50 mph, as well as pounding, beach-chewing waves and fast-moving thunderstorms along much of the South Florida coast.
The effect could be worse in Jamaica and eastern Cuba, both under hurricane warnings for the late-season storm. In Kingston, where gray clouds were darkening the sky at midday, the capital city's streets were jammed with traffic as residents rushed to stock up on food, fill gas tanks and pick up children at schools closed early.
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."
At 11 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said Sandy's maximum sustained winds had increased to 60 mph and the storm was forecast to intensify over the next two days. The storm, moving north-northeast at 10 mph, was about 195 south of Kingston. Sandy was expected to pass over Jamaica on Wednesday, possibly as a Category 1 hurricane with 80 mph winds, and remain a hurricane as it hits eastern Cuba that night.
The government of Cuba issued a hurricane warning for much of eastern Cuba including Guantanamo. Tropical storm warnings were posted for Haiti and the Central and Southeastern Bahamas, where Sandy was bound for by Thursday.
Although 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 NHC 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.
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.
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.
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