The towns and villages of Haiti’s southwestern peninsula battened down as best they could early Tuesday for a nightlong lashing by life-threatening winds, rains and storm surge unleashed by powerful Hurricane Matthew.
The dangerous Category 4 storm was also dropping heavy rains on other parts of Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country where many people live in flimsy shacks in areas prone to flooding. Heavy rain also fell on Jamaica and dangerous rainfall was a threat for the Dominican Republic, which adjoins Haiti.
Matthew had maximum sustained winds of 145 mph early Tuesday, and forecasters said its slowly advancing center would likely pass near or over Haiti’s southwestern tip after dawn. It would continue on for another landfall expected in the lightly populated eastern end of Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
“We are looking at a dangerous hurricane that is heading into the vicinity of western Haiti and eastern Cuba,” said Richard Pasch, a senior hurricane specialist with the center. “People who are impacted by things like flooding and mudslides hopefully would get out and relocate because that’s where we have seen loss of life in the past.”
Haitian officials spent the day Monday trying to persuade shantytown residents to take advantage of shelters being set up. Some people took up the offers, but many refused, saying they feared their meager possessions might be stolen.
“If we lose our things we are not going to get them back!” said Toussaint Laine, an unemployed man who lives with his family in a shack in Tabarre, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, the capital.
Authorities also went door to door in the south coast cities of Les Cayes and Jeremie to make sure people were aware of the storm’s threats. At least 1,200 people were moved to shelters in churches and schools.
“We are continuing to mobilize teams in the south to move people away from dangerous areas,” said Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of Haiti’s civil protection agency.
Many Haitians live in flimsy houses set up in risky places. In an unregulated sprawl of shacks built on hillsides near the northern edge of the capital, some poor families did what they could to reinforce their tin-and-tarp home and hoped for the best.
“I know my house could easily blow away. All I can do is pray and then pray some more,” Ronlande Francois said by the tarp-walled shack where she lives with her unemployed husband and three children.
Forecasters said the storm could dump as much as 40 inches (100 centimeters) of rain on some isolated areas of Haiti, raising fears of deadly mudslides and floods in the heavily deforested country where flooding is common.
Haiti’s civil protection agency reported one death, a fisherman who drowned in rough water churned up by the storm. That raised Matthew’s death toll to at least three. One man died in Colombia and a teen was killed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines as the storm moved through the Caribbean.
Cuba’s government declared a hurricane alert for six eastern provinces and workers removed traffic lights from poles in the city of Santiago to keep them from falling when the storm hit.
At one point a Category 5 storm, and the region’s strongest hurricane since Felix in 2007, Matthew was expected to make landfall in Cuba about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, where authorities flew out about 700 spouses and children of service members.
The U.S. hurricane center said that after crossing Cuba, the storm probably would move northward through the Bahamas, but that it was too soon to predict with certainty whether it would threaten the U.S. East Coast.
“Although our track is to the east of Florida, interests there should remain vigilant and we can’t rule out the possibility of impacts,” Pasch said.
As of 2 a.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 60 miles south of Tiburon, Haiti, and 165 miles west-southwest of Port-au-Prince. It was moving north near 8 mph.