NASSAU, Bahamas — Powerful Hurricane Sandy lashed the central Bahamas on Thursday night with violent winds and torrential rains, after causing at least 21 deaths in the Caribbean.
The destruction was an ominous warning for the U.S. East Coast. Forecasters say an early winter storm from the west and Sandy could collide and park over the country's most populous coastal corridor. It may reach as far inland as Ohio with gale-force winds, heavy rain and possibly snow starting Sunday and stretching past Halloween.
Meteorologists say the "Frankenstorm'' is likely to cause $1 billion in damages, rivaling the "Perfect Storm'' of 1991.
Utilities are lining up out-of-state work crews and canceling employees' days off to deal with the expected power outages. From county disaster chiefs to the federal government, emergency officials are warning the public to be prepared. President Barack Obama was briefed aboard Air Force One.
"It's looking like a very serious storm that could be historic," said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the forecasting service Weather Underground. "Mother Nature is not saying 'trick-or-treat.' "
The southeastern Florida coast, the Upper Keys and Florida Bay might feel tropical storm conditions from Sandy by this morning, forecasters said.
In Cuba, state media said Sandy toppled houses, ripped off roofs and killed 11 people in the eastern provinces of Santiago and Guantanamo as it roared over the island as a Category 2 storm early Thursday.
There were no reports of injuries at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, but there were downed trees and power lines, said Kelly Wirfel, a base spokeswoman. Officials canceled a military tribunal session scheduled for Thursday for a prisoner charged in the 2000 attack on the Navy destroyer USS Cole.
In Haiti, Joseph Edgard Celestin, a spokesman for the civil protection office, said the country's death toll stood at nine, including three people who died while trying to cross storm-swollen rivers in southwestern Haiti. He did not provide specifics of how the others died.
Officials reported flooding across Haiti, where many of the 370,000 people still displaced by the devastating 2010 earthquake scrambled for shelter. More than 1,000 people were evacuated from 11 quake settlements, according to the International Organization for Migration.
One death was reported in Jamaica.
By Thursday evening, the hurricane's center was about 105 miles east of the Bahamas capital of Nassau as it spun between Cat Island and Eleuthera in the central Bahamas. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 100 mph, down slightly from earlier in the day, and was moving north-northwest at 17 mph.
Sandy is likely to come ashore as a tropical storm somewhere in New Jersey on Tuesday morning, said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecaster Jim Cisco. But this is a storm that will affect a far wider area, so people all along the East have to be wary, Cisco said.
Once Sandy makes landfall, "it will get broader. It won't be as intense, but its effects will be spread over a very large area," the National Hurricane Center's chief hurricane specialist, James Franklin, said Thursday.
One of the more messy aspects of the expected storm is that it just won't leave. The worst of it should peak early Tuesday, but it will stretch into midweek, forecasters say. Weather may start clearing in the mid-Atlantic the day after Halloween and Nov. 2 in the Northeast, Cisco said.
"It's almost a weeklong, five-day, six-day event," Cisco said Thursday from NOAA's northern storm forecast center in College Park, Md. "It's going to be a widespread serious storm."
The New York area could see around 5 inches of rain during the storm, while there could be snow southwest of where it comes inland, Cisco said. That could mean snow in eastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, western Virginia, and the Shenandoah Mountains, he said.
It is likely to hit during a full moon when tides are near their highest, increasing coastal flooding potential, NOAA forecasts warn. With some trees still leafy and the potential for snow, power outages could last to Election Day, some meteorologists fear.
Both private and federal meteorologists were calling this a storm that will likely go down in the history books.
"We don't have many modern precedents for what the models are suggesting," Cisco said.