Vulnerable Haiti braced for flash floods and violent winds from the extremely dangerous Hurricane Matthew as the powerful storm kept on a path aiming at the hemisphere’s poorest country.
The eye of the approaching Category four hurricane was expected to pass to the east of Jamaica and then cross over or be very close to the southwestern tip of Haiti late by early today, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said. It was also predicted to hit the lightly populated eastern tip of Cuba this afternoon.
Forecasters said as much as 40 inches of rain could fall on some isolated areas of Haiti, raising fears of deadly mudslides and floods in the heavily deforested country where many families live in flimsy houses with corrugated metal roofs.
“Some of us will die, but I pray it won’t be a lot,” said Serge Barionette in the southern town of Gressier, where a river recurrently bursts its banks during serious storms.
Forecasters said the southern Haitian countryside around Jeremie and Les Cayes could see the worst of the rains and punishing winds.
“Wherever that centre passes close to would see the worst winds and that’s what’s projected to happen for the western tip of Haiti,” said John Cangilosi, a hurricane specialist at the US centre. “There is a big concern for rains there and also a big concern for storm surge.”
Matthew is one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent history and briefly reached the top classification, Category five, becoming the strongest hurricane in the region since Felix in 2007. The hurricane centre said the storm appeared to be on track to pass east of Florida through The Bahamas, but it was too soon to predict with certainty whether it would threaten any spot on the US East Coast.
Officials with Haiti’s civil protection agency said there were roughly 1,300 emergency shelters across the country, enough to hold up to 340,000 people. Authorities broadcast warnings over the radio telling people to swiftly heed evacuation warnings, trying to counter a common tendency for people to try to stay in their homes to protect them during natural disasters.
In a brief address carried on State radio, interim President Jocelerme Privert urged Haitians to listen closely to official warnings and be ready to move. “To those people living in houses that could collapse, it’s necessary that you leave these houses to take refuge in schools and churches,” he said.
Teams of civil protection officials walked the streets of Les Cayes and other areas urging residents to secure their homes, prepare emergency kits and warn their neighbours. They also evacuated people from some outlying islands.
“The centre of the system is looking more likely that it will pass to the east of Jamaica, but it won’t miss it by that much, so they are still going to see impacts,” Cangilosi said. “The impacts are maybe going to be a little lower there than they would be in Haiti and eastern Cuba.”
After passing Jamaica and Haiti, Matthew is projected to reach Cuba. The centre was expected to pass about 50 miles east of the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, where authorities evacuated about 700 spouses and children of service members on military transport planes to Florida.
The US installation has a population of about 5,500, including 61 men held at the detention centre for terrorism suspects. Navy Captain David Culpepper, the base commander, said emergency shelters had been set up and authorities were bracing for 80 mph winds and storm surge and heavy rain that could threaten some low-lying areas, including around the power plant and water desalination facility.
“We have no choice but to prepare ourselves to take a frontal assault if you will,” Culpepper said.