PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – An extremely dangerous Hurricane Matthew moved slowly over the Caribbean on Sunday, following a track that authorities warned could trigger devastating floods in parts of Haiti.
The powerful Category 4 hurricane had winds of 145 mph on Sunday evening. Its center was expected to pass to the east of Jamaica and then cross over or be very close to the southwestern tip of Haiti late Monday before reaching Cuba on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
A hurricane warning was in effect for Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti. Rain was already falling on Jamaica, but forecasters said the southern Haitian countryside around Jeremie and Les Cayes could see the worst of the rains and punishing winds.
“Wherever that center 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 U.S. center. “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 5, becoming the strongest hurricane in the region since Felix in 2007. The hurricane center 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 reach the U.S. 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 Sunday address carried on state radio, interim President Jocelerme Privert urged Haitians to listen closely to the warnings of officials 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 neighbors. They also evacuated people from some outlying islands. Many Haitians appeared unaware of the looming hurricane.
“No, I haven’t heard anything about a bad storm coming here,” farmer Jean-Bernard Mede said with a concerned expression as he took a break from walking three cows along a dirt track outside the flood-prone town of Leogane. “I’ll do what I can for my animals and my family.”
Forecasters said the slow-moving hurricane was expected to dump 15 to 25 inches of rain over southern Haiti, with a few places getting as much as 40 inches.
The impoverished country is particularly vulnerable to devastating floods because of the steep terrain, with hillsides and mountains often devoid of trees that hold back water because they have been cut down to make charcoal for cooking fires. Many Haitians live in flimsy houses that are not able to withstand a serious storm, typically built of scraps of wood with corrugated metal roofs.
As of 8 p.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 335 miles south-southwest of Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince. It was moving northwest at 5 mph.
A hurricane watch was posted for the southeastern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. A tropical storm warning was in effect for parts of the Dominican Republic, where authorities began mandatory evacuations of areas at risk for flooding.
The hurricane earlier had been projected to be closer to Jamaica, but still was a danger to the island.
“The center 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 was projected to reach Cuba. The center was expected to pass about 50 miles east of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, where authorities evacuated about 700 spouses and children of service members on military transport planes to Florida.
The U.S. installation has a population of about 5,500, including 61 men held at the detention center for terrorism suspects. Navy Capt. 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 for to take a frontal assault if you will,” Culpepper said.
Cuban President Raul Castro traveled to the eastern city of Santiago to oversee preparations for Matthew’s arrival.
A report on state television showed the 85-year-old leader discussing the hurricane’s path with ministers and saying: “This is a hurricane we need to prepare for as if it were twice as powerful as Sandy,” the 2012 hurricane that devastated much of Cuba’s second-largest city.
Hundreds of Cuban soldiers were moving in convoys around the city and state workers with chain saws cut tree limbs overhanging power lines and homes. Trains from Havana to eastern Cuba were cancelled and the government called on residents of eastern Cuba to move livestock to high ground, tape up their windows and store potable water ahead of the hurricane’s arrival.