Haiti and Jamaica implored residents in vulnerable coastal areas to evacuate and Cuba suspended flights on Sunday as Hurricane Matthew, the strongest storm to menace the Caribbean islands in years, spun slowly toward the region.
Matthew is expected to scrape western Haiti on Monday as a major storm bringing 145 mile per hour (230 kph) winds and life-threatening rain to the southern coast, while simultaneously lashing Jamaica.
Eastern Cuba also will feel bands of fierce wind and rains on Monday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The storm was slowly advancing at 5 miles per hour (7 kph), located about 295 miles (475 km) southeast of Kingston on Sunday afternoon. The hurricane center ranked it at Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity. Earlier it had been ranked at the top Category 5.
“Slow motion is almost always a bad thing for any land area impacted,” said John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist and meteorologist at the center, noting that the storm’s devastating rains and winds will linger over the region.
With tropical storm conditions expected to reach Haiti and Jamaica on Sunday night, officials on both islands urged residents to prepare. In Haiti, the prime minister’s office issued a red alert warning for landslides, high waves and floods.
Matthew is the most powerful hurricane to form over the Atlantic since Felix in 2007 and as many as 40 inches (101 cm) of rain could fall on parts of southern Haiti. That could trigger deadly flash floods and mud slides, the Miami-based hurricane center said.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and a combination of weak government and precarious living conditions for most of its people makes it particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.
More than 200,000 people were killed when a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the country in January 2010, wrecking thousands of homes, schools and hospitals.
A NASA satellite image shows Hurricane Matthew over the waters just south of Jamaica and Haiti. Photo: NASA/Reuters
“IN ORDER TO SAVE LIVES”
In Jamaica, which could see up to 25 inches (64 cm) of rain, the government was preparing buses to help evacuate villagers in Port Royal, located at the vulnerable edge of Kingston Harbour.
“We’re urging persons to evacuate if they live in low-lying or flood-prone areas,” said Delmares White, spokeswoman for Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management. “We’re urging them to do so in order to save lives.”
In Kingston, residents stocked up on canned foods, water and batteries ahead of the storm, while banks and offices boarded their windows. Fishermen were told not to go to sea.
Sabrina Neil, a 41-year-old radio announcer, worried about the potential impact as she stood with a crowd buying flashlights at a MegaMart supermarket.
“We’re not prepared economically and in the infrastructure,” she said.
Haiti had started evacuating residents by boat from small, exposed sandy islands in the south as a precaution on Saturday. Boats were prohibited from going to sea on Sunday.
In Cuba, where evacuations already were well underway, many flights were suspended as of noon on Sunday. In city of Santiago de Cuba, residents formed long lines for supplies while authorities took down traffic signals to protect them from the wind and hotels boarded up their windows.
Cuban President Raul Castro warned that Matthew was stronger than Hurricane Sandy, which devastated Santiago de Cuba in 2012.
“We have to prepare as if it has twice the power of Sandy,” Castro was reported as saying in the Granma newspaper on a visit to Santiago de Cuba. “There is no other choice.”
A few miles east, the United States was airlifting some 700 spouses and children to Florida from its Guantanamo Bay naval base. Prisoners, servicemen and women will stay at the site.
“Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facilities can withstand the current projected storm strength and the detainees will shelter in place,” said spokesman John Filostrat, adding they could be moved to shelters on base if the storm intensifies.
Cuba plans to move tourists to safer ground in the next 24 to 36 hours, state-run media said. About half a dozen hotels frequented by tourists from Europe and Canada are in the path of the storm surge in Cuba.
Later in the week, Matthew could affect the Bahamas and the U.S. East Coast, although forecasts so far out are often inaccurate. The U.S. State Department on Sunday authorized family members of its workers to leave and recommended U.S. citizens also depart.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said residents of his state should prepare for what could be a catastrophic storm.