KINGSTON, Jamaica – Jamaicans on Tuesday braced for sheets of rain, lashing winds and a powerful storm surge as strengthening Tropical Storm Sandy took aim at the island as it churned over warm Caribbean waters.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Sandy was expected to become a hurricane as it nears Jamaica on Wednesday. The late season storm is expected to travel from south to north over the Caribbean country, which hasn't sustained a direct hit from a hurricane's eye since powerful Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Hurricane conditions were possible in eastern Cuba by Wednesday night.
On Tuesday, the outer bands of the approaching storm were already drenching parts of Jamaica with intermittent downpours that sent brown water rushing down streets and gullies. Tropical storm winds and sustained rains were expected in the evening.
In the poor Kingston community of Standpipe, Christopher "Boxer" Bryce and his relatives were bracing for the worst as they quickly tried to finish repairs to their concrete home's leaking roof.
"This is giving all of us a nervous feeling, old and young. I'm hoping the storm doesn't leave too many problems," said Bryce, as his brother Brian adjusted a plastic bucket to catch more of the water dripping steadily down from the cracked ceiling.
Across a debris-clogged gully, dreadlocked Philip Salmon was trying to find more sheet metal to bolster his shack's rusting roof. The laborer lives by himself in a ramshackle settlement of illegal homes just below the U.S. Embassy.
"Everybody's worried about it here, I can tell you. This storm is no small thing," said Salmon, whose sheet metal roof is held in place by rocks, just like that of many of his neighbors.
Two years ago, several members of a family living along a nearby stretch of the gully were swept away during Tropical Storm Nicole after part of their home collapsed into the waterway's raging current. People living in the shantytowns are warned repeatedly to move for their own safety but most refuse to relocate.
Jamaica's government issued a hurricane warning on Tuesday morning and announced schools would close on Wednesday. It has urged people in flood-prone areas to be on alert and advised fishermen on outlying cays to return to the mainland. It was not immediately clear if most people were heeding the message.
Some residents flocked to grocery stories to stock up on food, propane, tarp, batteries and water. At one major supermarket, hardly any bread remained on the shelves.
In Cuba, authorities issued a hurricane watch for several provinces, including Guantanamo in the extreme east, where authorities at the U.S. military base were trying to wrap up military commission hearings before the storm was felt.
Skies were largely overcast over Haiti, where a tropical storm warning was in effect. A tropical storm watch was called for the central and southeastern Bahamas, meaning stormy conditions were possibly within 48 hours.
In Jamaica, Sandy was expected to dump more than 10 inches of rainfall, especially over central and eastern parts of the island, according to the country's meteorological service. Flash flooding and landslides are likely on the mountainous island, Jamaican forecasters said.
Sandy's maximum sustained winds Tuesday afternoon were near 50 mph. It was moving north-northeast at about 5 mph and its center was about 275 miles south-southwest of Kingston by 2 p.m. EDT.
Storm surge was expected to raise water levels by as much as three feet above normal tide levels along Jamaica's southern and eastern coasts.
Sandy on Monday became the 18th named storm of this year's busy Atlantic season, which officially ends Nov. 30.
Meanwhile, a tropical depression in the Atlantic was expected to become a tropical storm later Tuesday. It does not pose any threat to land.
The depression's maximum sustained winds are near 35 mph. The depression is centered about 915 miles northeast of the Leeward Islands and is moving north-northeast near 15 mph.