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Hurricane Sandy set to strengthen on path to Cuba

26 october 2012, 20:42
Hurricane Sandy was expected to strengthen as it careened towards Cuba early Thursday after battering Jamaica, where it downed power lines and forced more than a thousand people to seek emergency shelter, AFP reports.

Citing police, Jamaican paper The Gleaner reported that the storm had claimed its first victim -- a 74-year-old man who was killed when a boulder rolled onto a house in Eastern St. Andrew.

The country's electricity provider meanwhile said some 70 percent of its customers were without power due to the high winds and torrential rain.

"This is a very serious storm," Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said earlier after cutting short a visit to Canada and rushing home before the island's international airports closed.

"The government takes the threat seriously and I call on all Jamaicans to do likewise and prepare to face the enormous risks that this type of weather system can bring."

Police ordered a 48-hour curfew in major towns for safety and to deter looters, while slum dwellers in Kingston's sprawling shantytowns hunkered down as the storm moved north across the island.

The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management said more than 1,064 people had moved into emergency shelters across the country, according to The Gleaner.

The eye of Sandy made landfall five miles (eight kilometers) south of Kingston -- home to one million of Jamaica's 2.7 million inhabitants -- at 3:00 pm local time (1900 GMT), packing sustained winds of 80 miles per hour.

By 0300 GMT the eye was approaching southeastern Cuba with gusts of up to 90 miles per hour, as forecasters warned the storm could become a category two hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale before making landfall.

The current category one storm was forecast to dump up to 12 inches of rain across Jamaica, eastern Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- with some areas even seeing isolated totals of 20 inches.

"These rains may produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, especially in areas of mountainous terrain," the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.

On the forecast track, Sandy will move over portions of eastern Cuba overnight before heading to the Bahamas Thursday and Friday. Tropical storm conditions were also forecast for Florida's east coast.

As heavy rain doused Cuba, some 1,700 people were evacuated in the country's Santiago de Cuba province as a precautionary measure.

"We cannot put a single human life in danger. We must evacuate people in areas we know are likely to be flooded, without losing time," local civil defense official Lazaro Esposito told Cuban television.

The approaching hurricane has also brought rough weather to the US naval base at Guantanamo where terror suspects are held.

The Pentagon said a preliminary hearing at Guantanamo involving the alleged Al-Qaeda mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in 2000 was delayed until Thursday due to the storm.

In 2008, Cuba was hit by three hurricanes that caused a total of $10 billion in damage and affected more than half a million homes.

Tropical Storm Gustav, which was less powerful than Hurricane Sandy, with sustained winds of 70 miles per hour, killed seven people in Jamaica in 2008.

Hurricane Ivan, a maximum category five on the Saffir-Simpson scale and the sixth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, killed 17 people and left 18,000 homeless when it smashed into Jamaica in September 2004.

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