By Makini Brice
LES CAYES, Haiti (Reuters) – The fiercest Caribbean storm in almost a decade ripped into Haiti’s southwestern peninsula early on Tuesday with 145 mile-per-hour (230 kph) winds and storm surges, killing at least one person and damaging homes.
The eye of the violent and slow-moving Category 4 storm was hovering over the western tip of Haiti, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, pounding coastal villages with strong gusts.
One man died as the storm crashed through his home in the beach town of Port Salut, Haiti’s civil protection service said. He had been too sick to leave for a shelter, officials said. One fisherman was killed in heavy seas over the weekend as the storm approached, and another was missing.
Overnight, Haitians living in vulnerable coastal shacks on the Tiburon Peninsula frantically sought shelter as Matthew closed in, bringing heavy rain and gusts and driving the ocean into seaside towns. Several districts in southern Haiti were flooded, with crops inundated with ocean and rain water.
About 3 feet (1 metre) of rain is forecast to fall over hills that are largely deforested and so more prone to flash floods and mudslides, threatening villages as well as shanty towns in the capital Port-au-Prince, where heavy rain fell overnight.
More than 9,000 people were huddled in shelters across Haiti, authorities said.
Life-threatening flash floods and mudslides were likely in southern and northwestern Haiti, the hurricane centre said. It expected Matthew to remain a powerful hurricane through at least Wednesday night.
The outer bands of the storm had already reached the area late on Monday, flooding dozens of houses in Les Anglais when the ocean rose, the mayor said. In the town of Les Cayes on the southern coast, the wind bent trees and the power went out.
CHILDREN, PRISONERS MOVED
“We have gusts of wind hitting the whole area and the people have fled to a shelter,” Les Anglais mayor Jean-Claude Despierre said.
In the nearby town of Tiburon, the mayor said people who had been reluctant to leave their homes also ran for cover when the sea rose.
“Everyone is trying to find a safe place to protect themselves, the situation is very difficult,” Mayor Remiza Denize said, describing large waves hitting the town.
People in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, are often reluctant to leave home in the face of storms, fearing their few belongings will be stolen.
Civil protection authorities said 130 children were evacuated by bus to a high school in the capital from an orphanage in the shoreside Cite Soleil slum, which is made up of tin shacks and open sewers and is known as Haiti’s largest shanty town.
Authorities moved around 1,000 inmates from at least four prisons to safer locations outside the storm’s path, officials said.
The hurricane comes at a time when tens of thousands of people are still living in tents in Haiti after a 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.
Cases of cholera, a deadly disease inadvertently brought to the Caribbean country by U.N. peacekeepers in 2010, had been expected anyway to rise in the October rainy season.
The country is due to hold a long-delayed presidential election on Oct. 9. The office of Interim President Jocelerme Privert said there was no change to the election date.
Crawling north at about 9 mph (15 kph), the strongest Caribbean storm since Hurricane Felix in 2009 threatens to linger long enough for its winds and rain to cause great damage in Haiti, where it will spend much of the day before hitting Cuba and the Bahamas later on Tuesday.
It could reach Florida by Thursday as a major hurricane, although weaker than at present, the hurricane centre said. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Florida on Monday, designating resources for evacuations and shelters and putting the National Guard on standby.
In Les Cayes about 150 people huddled without electricity or food in the town’s largest shelter, a school.
“Since yesterday we’ve had nothing … We must sleep on the floor … Everyone is hungry,” said Erick Cange, 69 years old, a resident of the La Savanne neighbourhood surrounding the school.
The conditions in the shelter compared unfavourably with Haiti’s neighbour Cuba. That island’s Communist government traditionally puts extensive efforts into saving lives and property in the face of storms, and authorities have spent days organising teams of volunteers to move residents to safety and secure property.
The storm is expected to make a direct hit later on Tuesday in the province of Guantanamo, which is home to the disputed U.S. Naval base and military prison and also to a small Cuban city. The U.S. Navy ordered the evacuation of 700 spouses and children of service personnel as the storm approached.
Guantanamo’s mountainous terrain is the country’s second coffee producer after nearby Santiago, and the storm poses a major threat to the current harvest.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said on Monday it was providing a combined $400,000 in aid to Haiti and Jamaica. The agency said in a statement it had pre-positioned relief supplies and was preparing to ship in additional supplies to the central Caribbean.
(Reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince and Maini Brice in Les Cayes; Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Cuba and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Gardner, Bill Trott and Frances Kerry)
Top image: A wave splashes on the beach at Siboney ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Matthew, Cuba, October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini