The crowded Jamaican capital took a direct hit Wednesday from Hurricane Sandy, forcing hundreds to flee to emergency shelters as strong winds and heavy rains battered Kingston.
"This is a very serious storm," Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller said in a warning to citizens after cutting short a visit to Canada and rushing home before the island's international airports closed.
"The government takes the threat seriously and I call on all Jamaicans to do likewise and prepare to face the enormous risks that this type of weather system can bring."
Police ordered a 48-hour curfew in major towns for safety and to deter looters, while slum dwellers in Kingston's sprawling shantytowns hunkered down as the storm began moving north across the island.
The eye of Sandy made landfall five miles (eight kilometers) south of Kingston -- home to one million of Jamaica's 2.7 million inhabitants -- at 3:00 pm local time (1900 GMT), packing sustained winds of 80 miles per hour.
The category one hurricane on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale was forecast to dump up to 12 inches of rain across Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and eastern Cuba.
"These rains may produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, especially in areas of mountainous terrain," the Miami-based National Hurricane Center warned in its 2100 GMT bulletin.
On the forecast track, Sandy will move over portions of eastern Cuba overnight, then head towards the Bahamas Thursday and Friday. Tropical storm conditions were also forecast for Florida's east coast.
Jamaican officials had issued mandatory evacuation orders late Tuesday for at-risk communities in low-lying coastal areas of the Caribbean nation.
"We now have over 437 persons in emergency shelters though those numbers could be higher at this time," Ronald Jackson, head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), told the Jamaica Observer as the storm made landfall.
Videos posted on Jamaican news sites showed powerful winds bending palm trees, waves slamming seaside homes and water flowing over a bridge in the community of Kintyre in Eastern St. Andrew.
Tropical Storm Gustav, which was less powerful than Hurricane Sandy with sustained winds of 70 miles per hour, killed seven people in Jamaica in 2008.
Hurricane Ivan, a maximum category five on the Saffir-Simpson scale and the sixth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, killed 17 people and left 18,000 homeless when it smashed into Jamaica in September 2004.
In Cuba, authorities have issued a hurricane warning for more than half the country, including the US naval base at Guantanamo where terror suspects are held.
The Pentagon said a preliminary hearing at Guantanamo involving the alleged Al-Qaeda mastermind of the USS Cole bombing in 2000 was delayed until Thursday due to the approaching hurricane.
In 2008, Cuba was hit by three hurricanes that caused a total of $10 billion in damage and affected more than half a million homes.