Hurricane Sandy dropped in strength to a Category 1 storm as it pounded the Bahamas with battering winds and rain on Friday, sweeping over the island chain after killing 21 people across the Caribbean and posing a menacing threat to the U.S. East Coast.
The projected path continues to keep the core clear of Florida, but much of the state can expect gusty winds and potentially heavy rains, with the worst conditions arriving Thursday night and continuing through the day on Friday.
Students were already scheduled to be out of public schools in Broward and Miami-Dade on Friday because of a teacher planning day. Palm Beach and Monroe County schools canceled classes on Friday. For now, South Florida's airports remain open, although several flights to Jamaica and the Bahamas have been canceled.
Emergency managers urged residents to drive cautiously in the high winds and "use good judgment" in preparing homes and businesses for gusty conditions.
At 5 a.m. Friday, Sandy was in the Atlantic about 15 miles southeast of Great Abaco Island or about 485 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina sprinting northwest at 13 mph with sustained winds of 80 mph.
Sandy made for a gray, windy Thursday across South Florida, causing no serious problems, the National Weather Service said. The system did generate gusts of 50 mph at Crandon Park and near Biscayne Bay in Miami-Dade County, meteorologist Chris Duke said.
A tropical storm warning has been posted for most of Florida's east coast, now extending from Flagler Beach south to Ocean Reef.
Because Sandy’s forward progress has increased, the system is expected to be about 250 miles east of Miami in the early morning hours of Friday, earlier than previously forecast.
At that point, it is predicted to have sustained winds of about 100 mph and make its closest approach to the state.
South Florida can expect sustained winds of about 35 to 40 mph Friday, with gusts up to 50 mph. The region also should see 1 to 2 inches of rain with higher amounts possible.
Central Florida can expect heavy winds with gusts to 30 mph inland and to about 45 at the coast. The region also can expect scattered showers Friday.
After Sandy moves north of the Bahamas, it is projected to make a gentle turn northeast into the Atlantic.
The long-range forecast now has Sandy bending back toward the U.S. coastline, possibly taking aim at New Jersey or New York on Tuesday.
The system also is expected to gradually weaken as it moves north, the result of encountering wind shear. It is expected to lose tropical characteristics by Tuesday.
Sandy's torrential rains and heavy winds were blamed for the deaths of 21 people. The Cuban government said on Thursday night that 11 people died when the storm barreled across the island, most killed by falling trees or in building collapses in Santiago de Cuba province and neighboring Guantanamo province.
Haiti's civil protection office said nine people died even though the country did not suffer a direct hit from Sandy, and one person was killed by falling rocks in Jamaica when the storm struck there on Wednesday.
The Cuban deaths were an unusually high number for the communist island which prides itself on protecting its people from storms by ordering mass evacuations.
Reuters contributed to this report
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