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Hurricane Sandy menaces U.S. after slamming Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - Hurricane Sandy swelled into a major threat to much of the U.S. East Coast on Thursday, U.S. forecasters said, as the storm swirled through the Bahamas after killing 21 people across the Caribbean.

Strengthening rapidly after tearing into Jamaica and crossing the warm Caribbean Sea, Sandy hit southeastern Cuba early on Thursday with top sustained winds up to 110 miles per hour (177 km per hour) that left a trail of destruction, especially in the historic city of Santiago de Cuba.

The Cuban government said on Thursday night that 11 people died in the storm, most killed by falling trees or in building collapses, including nine in Santiago de Cuba province and two in neighboring Guantanamo province.

Haiti's civil protection office said nine people had died despite not getting 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 that prides itself on protecting its people from storms by ordering mass evacuations.

Images on Cuban television showed downed trees, damaged buildings and debris-clogged streets in the country's second-largest city of Santiago de Cuba, which suffered a direct hit when the storm came ashore in the early morning hours.

"Everything's destroyed in Santiago. People are going to have to work very hard to recover," Alexis Manduley, a resident of the 498-year-old city, told Reuters by telephone.

Santiago de Cuba, with a population of about 500,000, is 470 miles southeast of Havana.

NEXT STOP: US EAST COAST

U.S. government forecasters warned that much of the U.S. East Coast could get swiped by Sandy, with flooding, heavy rains and high winds beginning late Thursday in Florida. By early next week - amid final preparations for the crucial November 6 presidential election - the storm could hit an area of New England where Hurricane Irene caused severe damage last year.

White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to speculate about whether there would be any change in President Barack Obama's campaign travel schedule because of Sandy, as he makes a last-minute blitz to win an edge over Republican Mitt Romney in a close race.

"The president's concern about this storm is to make sure that citizens in potentially affected areas are aware of this and taking necessary precaution," Carney said.

He spoke aboard Air Force One as Obama headed from Florida to Virginia, saying the president had asked his team to hold regular briefings with federal disaster officials as the storm progresses.

Sandy is forecast to make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane and the hardest-hit areas could span anywhere from the coastal Carolinas up to Maine, with New York City and the Boston area potentially in harm's way.

"Regardless of the exact track of Sandy, it is likely that significant impacts will be felt over portions of the U.S. East Coast through the weekend and into early next week," the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

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