KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaicans stocked up on supplies and reinforced roofs on Tuesday ahead of the arrival of Tropical Storm Sandy, which is expected to hit the Caribbean island of posh resorts and sprawling shantytowns as a hurricane with lashing rain and wind.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the strengthening storm was churning over warm Caribbean waters and should reach Jamaica on Wednesday, most likely as a Category 1 hurricane. The late-season storm is expected to travel from south to north over the island, which local meteorologists say hasn't sustained a direct hit from a hurricane's eye since powerful Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.
Acting Prime Minister Peter Phillips said "all Jamaicans must take the threat of this storm seriously" and asked people to look out for their neighbors, especially children, the elderly and the disabled.
Hurricane conditions were possible in eastern Cuba by Wednesday night. The storm is forecast to pass near the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where pretrial hearings are being held for a suspect in the attack on the Navy destroyer the USS Cole. Authorities at the base had considered suspending this week's proceedings, but said that as of late Tuesday they planned to continue despite Sandy.
On Tuesday night, the outer bands of Sandy were drenching parts of Jamaica with steady rain that sent brown water rushing down streets and gullies. Tropical storm winds were expected to hit later in the night or early Wednesday.
Schools, government offices and Kingston's port shut down early and the country's international airports prepared to close Wednesday morning.
The Jamaican Constabulary Force called numerous curfews in neighborhoods across the island to prevent crime and protect properties.
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 near 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, six members of a family living along a nearby stretch of the gully were swept away during the relatively weak 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.
About a mile away in the riverside town of Tavern, Errol Heron rushed back to his home next to the rushing Hope River carrying a loaf of bread. He said he's confident his home will manage Sandy intact since a new retaining wall was built below his property.
"But I'm looking forward to this being over," Heron said Tuesday evening on a bridge in the community.
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. There were reports in local media saying roughly 100 fishermen were stranded on the lobster- and conch-rich Pedro Cays because they didn't have enough fuel for the journey.
In Kingston, Jamaica's biggest city, 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 and there were intermittent rains 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.
Although Florida was not expected to receive any direct impact from Sandy, Brian Koon, director of the U.S. state's emergency management division, said residents should remain aware of the storm and take precautions to keep themselves safe from indirect impacts such as windy conditions, rain and rip currents.
In Jamaica, Sandy was expected to dump more than 10 inches (25 centimeters) 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 evening were roughly 50 mph (85 kph). It was moving north-northeast at about 8 mph (13 kph) and its center was about 225 miles (360 kilometers) south-southwest of Kingston by 8 p.m. EDT.
Sandy on Monday became the 18th named storm of this year's busy Atlantic season, which officially ends Nov. 30.
Meanwhile, U.S. forecasters said a tropical depression in the Atlantic could possibly become a tropical storm later Tuesday or Wednesday. There were no coastal watches or warnings in effect as it spun over open waters some 990 miles (1,590 kilometers) northeast of the Leeward Islands. The depression's maximum sustained winds were near 35 mph (55 kph).