Hurricane Sandy, growing stronger over warm Caribbean waters, lashed eastern Cuba with heavy rains and rising winds on Wednesday as it bore down on the communist island after ripping across Jamaica.
At least 55,000 people had been evacuated, Cuban officials said, principally because of expected flooding from rains that could total up to 20 inches in some places and a storm surge the Cuban weather service said was already beginning along the southeastern coast.
They said the surge could reach 6 feet, with waves up to 26 feet expected to pound the coast.
Forecasters said there's a chance Sandy will eventually hug the East Coast and possibly even make landfall in the Northeast.
The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore said hurricane-force gusts could start to hit the east coast of Florida by Friday.
One of two computer models being tracked has Sandy moving inland over the Northeast by early Tuesday morning, NBC News meteorologist Al Roker said on TODAY.
That scenario is more likely to play out, he added, if the jet stream curves back and allows "Sandy to hug the coast and bring it as either a tropical storm or very weak hurricane."
In that case, the Northeast could see 10-12 inches of rain along the Eastern Seaboard.Video: Sandy could head for Northeast
The storm, with sustained winds of 90 miles per hour, was intensifying over 88-degree Fahrenheit waters and could climb from a Category 1 storm to Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson hurricane intensity scale, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 11 p.m. EDT advisory.
A Category 2 storm has winds between 96 and 110 mph.
Sandy was located 85 miles southwest of Guantanamo, Cuba, and moving north at 13 mph, the center said.
The eye of the storm was expected to make landfall near Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city, 470 miles southeast of Havana, Cuban forecasters said.
They said it would cross the island within a few hours, heading north toward the Bahamas, where hurricane warnings have been posted for the southeastern Ragged Islands. A tropical storm watch was in place for south Florida.
The Cuban government suspended flights to and from eastern Cuba, along with bus and train service in the area.
Officials put agricultural products including sugar and coffee into warehouses out of harm's way. Almost 3,000 Cubans working on the coffee harvest in Santiago de Cuba were sent home.
In Holguin province, processing plants for nickel, Cuba's main export, continued operations, Cuban television said.
Cubans said they were battening down the hatches as the storm approached.
"The weather is getting very ugly," said self-employed worker Esteban O'Reilly in Santiago de Cuba.
"I've lit a candle to the Virgin of Charity, the patron saint of Cuba, to ask that Sandy not do much damage," said O'Reilly, 45.
At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, winds near 50 mph were blowing heavy rains sideways and rattling doors at a base hotel, said Reuters reporter Jane Sutton, who was at the base to cover war crimes tribunals.
Electricity was out and all but emergency workers were confined to quarters, she said.
Military officials said most of the 166 prisoners at Guantanamo were already housed in buildings capable of withstanding a hurricane, and the few who were not had been moved to safe quarters.
In Jamaica, Sandy caused widespread power outages, flooded streets, damaged homes and caused at least one death.
"A part of the roof of my veranda just went like that," said Walford Freak, 55, who lives in the coastal city of Iter Boreale. "At least five of my neighbors have lost their entire roofs."
A police official said a man died under a crush of stones that fell from a hillside as he tried to get into his house in a rural village near Kingston, Jamaica's capital.
The Miami area should see the worst from Sandy on Thursday night and Friday, the National Weather Service stated. Strong winds, beach erosion and heavy rain are possible across Southeast Florida, it added.
"It is a big storm and it's going to grow in size after it leaves Cuba," NHC forecaster Michael Brennan told Reuters.
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."
"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, the center added, and as much as 4 to 7 feet above normal in the Bahamas on Friday.
Out in the deep Atlantic, Tropical Storm Tony formed overnight but posed no threat to land as it moved northeast.
Reuters contributed to this report.