Sandy clings to hurricane strength off Florida coast

40 deaths in carribean attributed to late-season hurricane

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Gusty winds and beach erosion were the first -- and perhaps only -- impact in Northeast Florida from deadly Hurricane Sandy as the storm crept north Friday about 200 miles offshore.

At 11 p.m. Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Sandy was 231 miles northeast of Miami or 320 miles southeast of Mayport.  The storm continued moving north at 7 mph -- which is good news for the Northeast Florida coast as it will keep the storm well offshore. 

Sandy's maximum sustained winds have dropped to 75 mph, with gusts to 90 mph.  A storm must have at least 74 mph winds to be classified a hurricane.  The latest NHC forecast shows Sandy weakening to a tropical storm early Saturday as it takes a turn to the northeast. 

Friday afternoon, the NHC extended tropical storm warnings north to include St. Johns County, with tropical storm watches still in effect in Duval and Nassau counties.  Later Friday, hurricane warnings were lifted south of Jupiter Inlet.

"The center of Hurricane Sandy will pass about 350 miles east of Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon," Channel 4 hurricane expert George Winterling wrote Friday on his Eye on the Storm blog. "Rough surf, dangerous rip currents and some beach erosion will occur along the beaches from the Carolinas to south Florida. Periods of cloudiness with strong gusty winds will dominate our weather Friday and part of Saturday with a few brief passing showers."

Winds in coastal areas of Northeast Florida are expected to reach 20 to 25 mph with gusts to 35 mph overnight, with a 50 percent chance of showers.  Channel 4 chief meteorologist John Gaughan sees rainfall amounts under three-quarters of an inch in St. Augustine, and even less along Jacksonville's beaches.

"For those living west of the Intracoastal Waterway, there will be gusts of wind, but very little rain," Gaughan said.

As the storm passes Saturday, winds will shift and come out of the northeast or north at 25 to 35 mph, with gusts to 45 mph.

The storm's greatest impact will be along the beaches, with 9 to 13 foot waves and dangerous rip currents.

"The riptides are strong now. That's why we want to preach to the surfers it may look appealing, but the rip current is too strong and our response will be somewhat delayed," said Lt. Grant Johnson, of the U.S. Coast Guard. "So we want to stress just stay out of the water."

Longer term, the NHC forecast shows Sandy regaining hurricane strength off the mid-Atlantic coast late Sunday before taking a westerly track into the New Jersey/New York area on Tuesday.

Deadly trek through Caribbean

Hurricane Sandy rolled out of the Bahamas on Friday after causing 40 deaths across the Caribbean, churning toward the U.S. East Coast, where it threatens to join forces with winter weather fronts to create a devastating super storm.

The Category 1 hurricane toppled light posts, flooded roads and tore off tree branches as it charged through Cat Island and Eleuthera in the scattered archipelago, with authorities reporting one man killed, the British CEO of an investment bank.

The death toll was still rising in impoverished Haiti, reaching 26 on Friday as word of disasters reached officials and rain continued to fall.

Joseph Edgard Celestin, a spokesman for Haiti's civil protection office, said some people died trying to cross storm-swollen rivers. While the storm's center missed the country as it passed on Wednesday, Haiti's ramshackle housing and denuded hillsides make it especially vulnerable to flood damage.

Officials at a morgue in the western town of Grand Goave said a mudslide crashed through a wooden home on Thursday, killing 40-year-old Jacqueline Tatille and her four children, ranging in ages from 5 to 17.

"If the rain continues, for sure we'll have more people die," said morgue deputy Joseph Franck Laporte. "The earth cannot hold the rain."

Sandy was a Category 2 hurricane when it wreaked havoc in Cuba on Thursday, killing 11 people in eastern Santiago and Guantanamo provinces as its howling winds and rain destroyed thousands of houses and ripped off roofs. Authorities said it was Cuba's deadliest storm since July 2005, when category 5 Hurricane Dennis killed 16 people and caused $2.4 billion in damage.

Cuban authorities said the island's 11 dead included a 4-month-old boy who was crushed when his home collapsed and an 84-year-old man in Santiago province. Near the city of Guantanamo, the Communist Party daily Granma reported, two men were killed by falling trees.

Official news media reported Friday that the storm caused 5,000 houses to at least partially collapse while ripping the roofs off 30,000 others. Banana, coffee, bean and sugar crops were damaged.

Sandy also killed a man in Jamaica on Wednesday when a boulder crashed through his house, and police in the Bahamas said a 66-year-old man died after falling from his roof in upscale Lyford Cay late Thursday while trying to repair a window shutter. Officials at Deltec Bank & Trust identified him as Timothy Fraser-Smith, who became CEO in June 2000.

One death was reported in Puerto Rico. Police said a man in his 50s was swept away Friday by a swollen river in the southern town of Juana Diaz, where rain from Sandy's outer bands has been steadily falling.

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