Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
Hurricane Sandy's rampage through the Caribbean today and Thursday is only the beginning: Forecasters say the storm could morph into a monstrous nor'easter and slam the U.S. East Coast next week - or it could miss us entirely.
If it hits the Northeast the day before Halloween, as one computer model shows, it would be a disastrous storm, bringing coastal flooding, drenching rainfall, high winds, downed trees, power outages, travel mayhem and even Appalachian snow, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
Could that happen? Unfortunately, as of midday today, the "chances are increasing for a major storm impacting the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast," according to an online forecast report by meteorologist James Cisco of the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center.
Regardless of what happens next week, Sandy's first U.S. impacts will be along the East Coast of Florida Thursday afternoon and evening, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen says.
Although the center of gigantic Sandy (even if downgraded to a tropical storm) will be between Cuba and the Bahamas, it will still affect Florida: Sandy will grow into a huge storm Thursday, Feltgen says, with tropical-storm-force winds extending as far as 220 miles from the eye.
The National Hurricane Center has issued tropical storm warnings and watches for Florida's southeastern coast from the Volusia/Brevard County line south to the Upper Keys.
The weather along waterlogged Florida's East Coast will be dismal Thursday through Saturday as Sandy slogs north, bringing gusty winds and rain, huge waves and dangerous rip currents. South Florida has had one of its wettest years on record and could do without any additional rain from Sandy. Just since May 1, Miami has received more than 5 feet of rain, the National Weather Service reports.
Where the storm goes after it moves past Florida Saturday is just a guess, Feltgen says. One computer model shows it curving out to sea, while another shows it hooking into the Northeast coast as a powerful nor'easter.
Nor'easters are intense areas of low pressure that develop off the East Coast during late fall, winter and early spring. They are called "nor'easters" because they usually bring strong northeast winds over the East as they move north along the Atlantic Coast.
By that point, Sandy would no longer be a tropical storm or hurricane, having transitioned to what meteorologists call an "extratropical" storm.
Sandy is throttling the Caribbean today with high winds and heavy rain. It made landfall in southeastern Jamaica this afternoon with a wind speed of 80 mph. As of 5 p.m. ET, Sandy still had sustained winds of 80 mph and was moving to the north at 14 mph and was emerging off the northeast coast of Jamaica. One person was killed in Haiti.
Before it's done, Sandy is likely to produce total rainfall amounts of 6 to 12 inches across Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba, with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches possible, according to meteorologist Steve Bowen of global reinsurance firm Aon Benfield. These rains may produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, especially in areas of mountainous terrain.
Tropical storms and hurricanes this late in the season aren't actually all that unusual, Feltgen says. He says that, on average, there are about two named tropical storms or hurricanes each October. Additionally, each of the past three Novembers has seen at least one storm, meaning we're not out of the woods even after Sandy.
Sandy is the 18th named tropical storm or hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and Tropical Storm Tony, spinning harmlessly in the Atlantic, makes 19. An average season sees about 12 named storms and hurricanes.