Les Cayes: Thousands of Haitians were still in vulnerable coastal areas ahead of Hurricane Matthew on Monday, which experts say threatens "catastrophic" damage from 140 mile-per-hour (220 kph) winds and up to 3 feet of rain over the country`s denuded hills.
The centre of Matthew, a violent Category 4 storm, is due near southwestern Haiti on Monday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. The slow-moving cyclone has veered from targeting Jamaica directly but is forecast to bring gale-force winds and dump hazardous amounts of rain on the island.
A combination of weak government, deforestation and precarious living conditions make Haiti susceptible to natural disasters. More than 200,000 people were killed when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck in 2010.
"It has the potential of being catastrophic,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the Miami-based hurricane centre, when asked about Matthew’s expected impact on Haiti.
"We’re looking at rain being measured in feet rather than inches," he added.
Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of the Haiti`s Department of Civil Protection, said one man was killed by large waves at sea over the weekend, and another went missing when his boat capsized, despite warnings to stay on dry land.
Haiti`s coastal city of Les Cayes is on Matthew`s predicted path and the usually sunny sky began to darken on Monday. Some residents of homes just feet away from the ocean, many made of scrap metal and zinc sheets, refused to move into government shelters ahead of dangerous predicted storm surges.
In the country`s largest slum, the seaside Cite Soleil in capital Port-au-Prince, Mayor Frederic Hislain called on the government to bus 150,000 people whose homes he said were threatened to safer places.
"Those people are living all along the seashore in a bunch of huts which usually can`t even really protect them from ordinary rain. Now we are talking about a strong hurricane. Imagine the disaster we may have to face here."
Haitians are often reluctant to leave their homes in the face of impending storms, fearing their belongings will be stolen.
In Les Cayes, about 150 people huddled without electricity or food in the city`s largest shelter, a school meant to house 600. Trash was already littered on the balconies.
"After the hurricane, we will be miserable. We`ll be hungry…The houses will be destroyed," said Rosette Joseph, 44, at the shelter with her four children.
Crawling north at just 6 miles per hour (9 kph), the storm threatens to linger enough for its winds and rain to cause great damage. Haiti is prone to flash floods and mudslides because most of its hillsides have been stripped bare by people cutting down trees to make charcoal to sell for fuel.
The storm comes at a bad time for Haiti. The poorest country in the Americas is set to hold a long-delayed presidential election on Sunday.
Ronald Semelfort, director of Haiti`s national meteorology centre compared Matthew to 1963`s Hurricane Flora, which swept away entire villages and killed thousands in Haiti.
Matthew was about 250 miles (400 km) southwest of Port-au-Prince, at 2 p.m. EDT Monday (1800 GMT), the U.S. hurricane centre said. It is expected to bring between 15 and 40 inches (38 to 101 cm) of rain to parts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Jamaica`s Kingston saw light showers most of the morning on Monday, with gray, overcast skies. At a nearby beach there were huge waves and crowds were gathering to film them from drones and cellphone cameras.
At the National Arena, which has been turned into a temporary shelter, Yvonne Nelson, of the Jamaica Red Cross said there were 52 people registered and the arena has a capacity for between 300-500 people.
"People don’t want to leave their homes because they don’t know what’s going to happen ... maybe someone will rob their homes. They are afraid of losing all their valuable things,” she said.
In both Jamaica and Haiti, authorities shut the main airports to wait for the storm to pass.
In Cuba, which Matthew is due to reach on Tuesday, evacuation operations were well underway, with most tourists in the eastern town of Santiago de Cuba moved inland and given instructions on where to shelter in hotels during the hurricane.