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Cuba: Hurricane Sandy leaves destruction in its wake (+video)

Hurricane Sandy knocked down trees, clogged streets and killed at least three people in the Caribbean. The storm is expected to hit the U.S. East Coast over the weekend and into next week. Flooding, high winds and downed trees are of concern.  

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"It has the potential to be a very significant storm with respect to coastal flooding, depending on exactly where it comes in. Power outages are definitely a big threat," he said.

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In a subsequent report, NOAA's storm-prediction center suggested that Sandy could invite the ghoulish nickname "Frankenstorm," due to upcoming celebrations of Halloween and some of the freakish characteristics of the storm.

The late-season cyclone is widely expected to undergo an unusual merger with a polar air mass over the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast on Tuesday, essentially bringing two sources of energy together and giving Sandy the potential to punch above its weight as it sloshes across the U.S. coast.

At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), the NHC said Sandy was about 125 miles (200 km) east-southeast of Nassau in the Bahamas and packing maximum sustained winds of 105 mph (165 kph).

It was still a Category 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, but some weakening was expected over the next 48 hours as Sandy moved through the Bahamas island chain.

High winds, rains and pounding surf are expected across parts of Florida's Atlantic coast, with the biggest impact lasting through Friday.

Orange juice prices rose in U.S. trading on Thursday on speculative buying as investors bet that Sandy could damage crops in the citrus-rich Sunshine State.

Unlike Irene, which caused billions of dollars in damage as it battered the Northeast in August last year, Sandy is forecast to drop below hurricane strength before making U.S. landfall. But it will be moving slower than Irene did, likely bringing more rain and increasing its potential for damage, weather forecasters said.

At $4.3 billion in losses, Irene ranks as one of the 10 costliest hurricanes, adjusted for inflation and excluding federally insured damage, according to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group. 

"A billion-dollar disaster"

Jeff Masters, a hurricane specialist and blogger with private forecaster Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com), said a landfall by Sandy on Monday along the Mid-Atlantic Coast could trigger "a billion-dollar disaster."

"In this scenario, Sandy would be able to bring sustained winds near hurricane force over a wide stretch of heavily populated coast," he said.

Alternately, Masters said, some computer forecast models indicated Sandy had the potential to unleash "the heaviest October rains ever reported in the northeast U.S., Nova Scotia and New Brunswick."

Oravec said there could be tropical-storm to hurricane-force winds on the coast and added: "Coastal flooding will be a big concern."

On Long Island, in the southeast corner of the Bahamas island chain, Joel Friese, general manager of the Stella Maris Resort, said Sandy was fierce as she cut across the island Thursday afternoon.

"It was way stronger than we expected. The eye seems to have passed over a good portion of Long Island from south to north. We had winds of 100 mph from the east until the eye passed," he said by telephone. "There are lots of downed trees and partial to heavy roof damage on some of the buildings."

Sandy is expected to hit the United States during a full moon, increasing the flood potential since tides will be at or near their highest.

"There's a big potential for huge effects from the storm," said NOAA's Oravec.

"We can't rule out the potential for snow eventually as we go into the week and the storm moves inland," he said.

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