Hurricane Sandy's howling winds and rains lashed precarious shantytowns, stranded travellers and caused rivers to rise dangerously Wednesday as it roared across Jamaica on a course that would take it on to Cuba and then possibly threaten Florida.

Sandy's death toll was at least two. An elderly man was killed in Jamaica when he was crushed by a boulder that rolled onto his clapboard house, police reported. Earlier Wednesday, a woman in Haiti was swept away by a rushing river she was trying to cross.

In some southern towns on Jamaica, several crocodiles were caught in rushing floodwaters that carried them out of their homes in mangrove thickets. One big croc took up temporary residence in a family's front yard in the city of Portmore.

By Wednesday evening the storm's eye had crossed Jamaica and emerged off its northern coast near the town of Port Antonio, meteorologists said, but rains and winds continued to pound the Caribbean island.

It was the first direct hit by the eye of a hurricane on Jamaica since Hurricane Gilbert 24 years ago, and fearful authorities closed the island's international airports and police ordered 48-hour curfews in major towns to keep people off the streets and deter looting. Cruise ships changed their itineraries to avoid the storm, which made landfall five miles (8 kilometres) east of the capital, Kingston.

Flash floods and mudslides were a threat for this debt-shackled tropical island of roughly 2.7 million inhabitants, which has a crumbling infrastructure and sprawling shantytowns built on steep embankments and in gullies.

Sandy is forecast to spin on into eastern Cuba overnight. It was expected to pass west of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where pretrial hearings were being held for a suspect in the deadly 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen.

Forecasters said tropical storm conditions were possible along the southeast Florida coast, the Upper Keys and Florida Bay by Friday morning. 

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Waves brought by Hurricane Sandy crash on a house in the Caribbean Terrace neighbourhood in eastern Kingston, Jamaica, on Oct. 24, 2012. (Collin Reid/Associated Press)

There were reports of extensive damage to Port Salut along Haiti's far-southwestern coast after a river burst its banks. Local municipal official Darius Joseph said some residents had left their flooded homes for shelter in schools and churches.

Stranded business travellers and a smattering of locals were riding out the hurricane in hotels clustered along a strip in Kingston's financial district. Some read prayer books or novels, while others watched movies or communicated with loved ones on computers.

Hopes and fears

Cris Hopkinson, a Toronto woman who was on a business trip, said she was hoping to catch a flight off the island Friday when the stormy weather clears.

"For now, I'm just hoping that the glass in the windows don't shatter from the winds," Hopkinson said in the dining room of the Courtleigh Hotel.

A couple of kilometres away in the troubled neighbourhood of Grants Pen, where shops have been ransacked in the past during storms, a number of young men ignored the curfew, riding on bicycles or walking in small groups in the steady rain.

Cecile Graham, a mother of two teenagers, said she was worried about the possibility of burglaries or looting at the small markets and shops that line the main road. "I hope that all the police are out and we won't have the looting that has taken place before," she said.

Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds warned that police "will react swiftly to protect life and property."

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Tropical Storm Sandy is seen churning in the western Caribbean Sea on Tuesday. (NASA/NOAA/Reuters)

Some Jamaicans spent the final hours before the hurricane trying to secure their properties. Andre Howt tried to finish repairs to a neighbour's roof that leaks badly even during a common rain storm. Steady drips from the concrete ceiling were filling plastic buckets.

"We don't have much time. We heard on the radio that the hurricane was coming this way," he said in the poor Kingston community of Standpipe, situated next to one of the debris-clogged gullies that crisscross the capital. "We'll be getting wet."

Dangerous flash floods and mudslides were a threat for the tropical island of roughly 2.7 million inhabitants, especially in mountainous areas, Jamaica's meteorological service said.

Cruise ship, airports disrupted

The threat from the storm led Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to cut short her visit to Canada. She was welcomed to Parliament Hill by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday, on an official visit to mark 50 years of bilateral relations between the two countries.

She had been scheduled to stay four days, but instead flew to her country on Tuesday.

Airports in Kingston and Montego Bay shut down for the day and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. announced that its Allure of the Seas megaship would not stop at Jamaica's northern Falmouth terminal on Wednesday, remaining at sea instead.

Across the country, curfews were imposed in rough slums and business centres, including the New Kingston financial district and the resort town of Montego Bay.

To deter looters and other criminals, Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds warned that police "will react swiftly to protect life and property." Outside its placid tourist resorts, the island has long struggled with high crime and gang violence.

In Cuba, authorities issued a hurricane warning for several provinces and there were intermittent rains over Haiti, where a tropical storm warning was in effect. 

The government of the Bahamas issued a hurricane warning for the central and northwestern Bahamas.  A tropical storm warning was issued for the east coast of Florida from Ocean Reef to Sebastian Inlet. 

Although Florida was not expected to receive any direct impact from Sandy, Brian Koon, director of the U.S. state's emergency management division, said residents should remain aware of the storm and take precautions to keep themselves safe from indirect impacts including rip currents.

With files from CBC News