KINGSTON — Hurricane Sandy pounded Jamaica with heavy rain and a powerful storm surge as it headed for landfall today near the country’s most populous city on a track that would carry it across the Caribbean island to Cuba, and then pose a possible threat to Florida. At least one person in nearby Haiti was killed after being swept away by a rushing river.
The island’s international airports closed, 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 neared Jamaica’s south coast. Police slowly drove through drenched communities in the capital of Kingston with their cruisers’ lights flashing.
The 18th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season made landfall in the vicinity of Kingston this afternoon and was predicted to spin on into eastern Cuba overnight. It was expected to pass west of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where pretrial hearings were being held for a suspect in the deadly 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen.
Forecasters at the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami said tropical storm conditions were possible along the southeast Florida coast, the Upper Keys and Florida Bay by Friday morning.
In southwestern Haiti, a woman died in the town of Camp Perrin after she was swept away by a river she was trying to cross, according to Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of the country’s civil protection office. There were also reports of extensive damage to Port Salut along Haiti’s far-southwestern coast after a river burst its banks. Local municipal official Darius Joseph said some residents had left their flooded homes for shelter in schools and churches.
Across Jamaica, poor and rich alike were growing increasingly jittery about Sandy’s approach. While Jamaica was ravaged by bands from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and other powerful hurricanes centred offshore, the eye of a hurricane hasn’t carved across the island since Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, according to Jamaican meteorologist Jacqueline Spence.
Stranded business travellers and a smattering of locals were riding out the hurricane in hotels clustered along a strip in Kingston’s financial district. Some read prayer books or novels, while others watched movies or communicated with loved ones on computers.
Cris Hopkinson, a Toronto woman who was on a business trip, said she was hoping to catch a flight off the island Friday when the stormy weather clears.
“For now, I’m just hoping that the glass in the windows don’t shatter from the winds,” Hopkinson said in the dining room of the Courtleigh Hotel.
About a mile away in the troubled neighbourhood of Grants Pen, where shops have been ransacked in the past during storms, a number of young men ignored the curfew, riding on bicycles or walking in small groups in the steady rain.
Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds warned that police “will react swiftly to protect life and property”.
Some Jamaicans spent the final hours before the hurricane trying to secure their properties. Andre Howt tried to finish repairs to a neighbour’s roof that leaks badly even during a common rain storm. Steady drips from the concrete ceiling were filling plastic buckets.
Dangerous flash floods and mudslides are a threat for the tropical island of roughly 2.7 million inhabitants, especially in mountainous areas, Jamaica’s meteorological service said. (AP)