KINGSTON, Jamaica (Reuters) - Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the southeast coast of Jamaica on Wednesday afternoon, posing a major flood risk to low-lying areas near the capital Kingston, hurricane forecasters said.
Schools and businesses closed and emergency authorities moved residents in low-lying, flood-prone areas into shelters as steady rain and winds pounded the Caribbean island.
There was little activity on the streets of Kingston as residents heeded the call by authorities to stay home. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller cut short a 5-day trip to Canada to get home before the storm.
“We must all be careful. Those who can move into shelters should do so now,” she said.
Several roads were flooded and blocked by fallen trees, and mudslides were reported near villages on the outskirts of Kingston. The government closed the island’s two international airports in Kingston and Montego Bay on Tuesday night.
“They will remain closed until further notice,” airports spokesman John McFarlane said in a statement.
Police imposed curfews on 80 communities across Jamaica as a deterrent to looting during the passage of the storm.
Looters shot and wounded a senior police officer on patrol in one volatile community. Police confirmed that Senior Superintendent of Police Terrence Bent, 44, was shot on Wednesday afternoon as he led a group of policemen through an section of West Kingston called Craig Town.
Hurricane Sandy was centered about 5 miles east of Kingston and was moving north at 14 mph with top sustained winds of 80 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in a 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) advisory.
A hurricane warning was in effect for both Jamaica and Cuba, although forecasters said Sandy is expected to be a weak Category One storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, with winds topping out at 85 mph.
Sandy’s expected path will not take it into the Gulf of Mexico, where U.S. oil and gas operations are clustered.
Computer models showed Sandy was on a projected path that would cut across the middle of Jamaica, with the eye passing close to Kingston and the popular north coast resort of Ocho Rios, before moving over eastern Cuba and losing hurricane strength as it reaches the Bahamas.
A hurricane watch was also issued on Wednesday for central and northwestern Bahamas, and a tropical storm watch was in place for south Florida, though computer models show the center of Sandy is expected to pass well to the east of the Florida coast.
“It is a big storm and it’s going to grow in size after it leaves Cuba,” said Michael Brennan, a hurricane forecaster at the NHC in Miami.
He said the storm’s wind field was likely to extend 200 miles west from the center as it passed over the Bahamas, causing “very high surf and dangerous conditions all the way up the east coast into the Carolinas.”
Forecasters are not sure where it would go after that, with some computer models showing it could pose a risk to the U.S. Northeast early next week.
”It’s too early to tell but there are some signs that have it hooking back towards the mainland as a wintertime ‘nor-easter,’ said Brennan, referring to the powerful, late-season storms that can form in the north Atlantic at this time of year.
Sandy is expected to dump as much as 6 to 12 inches of rain across parts of Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba, with as much as 20 inches possible in some places, forecasters said.
“These rains may produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides ... especially in areas of mountainous terrain,” the hurricane center warned.
Storm surge could also raise water levels on Jamaica’s south and east coasts by 1 to 3 feet above normal tide levels, it added, and as much as 5 to 8 feet above normal in the Bahamas on Friday.
Writing by David Adams; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Vicki Allen