MIAMI (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Nicole triggered flash flooding that killed eight people in Jamaica and dumped heavy rain on Florida, Cuba, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas on Wednesday.
The broad, ragged cyclone teetered on the edge of tropical storm strength, prompting a disagreement between U.S. and Cuban meteorologists as to whether it actually was a tropical storm.
Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami pegged its top sustained winds at 40 miles per hour, just over the 39 mph threshold to become a named storm.
Cuban forecasters put the top winds at 37 mph and disagreed that it was a tropical storm when it crossed the island.
“No tropical storm exists,” Cuba’s top meteorologist, Jorge Rubiera, said on national television.
U.S. forecasters said Nicole had a poorly defined center of circulation. They estimated the center was about 80 miles northeast of Havana by midafternoon on Wednesday.
“This is a marginal system,” said Richard Pasch, a senior hurricane specialist in Miami. “Their interpretation is that they don’t think it’s a storm … They’re on one side of the margin and we’re on the other.”
The cyclone was moving north-northeast and was forecast to move over the Atlantic between Florida and the Bahamas Wednesday night. It was expected to dissipate before moving ashore as a large mass of thunderstorms near the South Carolina-North Carolina border during the weekend.
Tropical storm or not, the primary threat from Nicole was heavy rainfall.
In Jamaica, the storm triggered floods that drowned two elderly men and a family of six.
A man in his seventies drowned in the village of Unity, north of Kingston, and a man in his 60s drowned in the southwest Jamaican town of Flagaman. Both were trying to walk home from village pubs when they were swept off by rising waters.
Police said a house occupied by a family of seven collapsed near the U.S. Embassy in the Liguanea area northeast of Kingston. A boy was rescued after citizens rushed to his aid but six members of his family were carried off by floodwaters and were confirmed to have drowned.
In Cuba, the heaviest rains fell in the central part of the island, where they were a welcome relief from a prolonged drought that had drained reservoirs and caused water shortages. Nearly 8 inches of rain fell in the central province of Sancti Spiritus.
“These rains are a gift from heaven. I hope they go on for two or three days,” said Mariela Diaz, an officer worker in the city of Sancti Spiritus.
The storm was expected to dump 5 to 10 inches of rain over the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Cuba, with up to 20 inches in isolated spots.
Tropical storm warnings were in effect in the Cayman Islands and parts of Cuba and the Bahamas. Warnings for Florida were dropped as the storm’s path shifted farther east than previously expected, though heavy rain fell on the southeast part of the state.
Nicole was projected to stay well clear of the Gulf of Mexico, where U.S. oil and gas operations are concentrated. The heaviest rains were on the east side of the system, which would spare the central Florida orange groves from damage.
(Writing by Jane Sutton, additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Havana and Horace George in Kingston)