Scramble for shelter as hurricane hits Haiti

Scramble for shelter as hurricane hits Haiti

The leading edge of dangerous Hurricane Matthew has drenched Haiti, flooding streets and sending people scrambling to emergency shelters as the Category 4 storm threatened to batter the Caribbean's poorest nation.

A slightly strengthened Matthew had sustained winds of 145mph late on Monday, up from 140mph earlier in the day. Its centre was expected to pass near or over the south-western tip of impoverished Haiti on Tuesday, then head for another landfall in eastern Cuba, the US National Hurricane Centre 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 centre.

"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."

In the Port-au-Prince suburb of Tabarre, officials spent Monday urging shanty town residents living next to a muddy river to take shelter at a school where cots were set up. While some went, many refused in fear their few possessions might be stolen.

"If we lose our things we are not going to get them back!" Toussaint Laine said as police and the mayor's office urged the jobless man and his family to evacuate.

Haiti's civil protection agency reported the death of a fisherman in rough water churned up by the storm. Agency chief Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste said another fisherman was missing.

The confirmed death in Haiti brought the total for the storm to at least three. One man died on Friday in Colombia and a 16-year-old was killed in St Vincent and the Grenadines on September 28 when the system passed through the eastern Caribbean.

Authorities went door to door in Haiti's south coast cities of Les Cayes and Jeremie to make sure people were aware of the storm. At least 1,200 people were moved to shelters in churches and schools.

There is no shortage of people with flimsy houses set up in risky places in Haiti. In an unregulated sprawl of shacks built on hillsides near the northern edge of Haiti's capital, some poor families did what they could to reinforce their homes. But most were just hoping 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 tarpaulin-walled shack where she lives with her unemployed husband and three children.

In Port-au-Prince, schools were closed while cars lined up at petrol stations and shoppers cleared shelves at supermarkets as rain fell.

Some worried the crowded capital might not fare well. "We are not prepared," unemployed mason Fritz Achelus said as he watched water pool on a street.

Forecasters said the storm could dump as much as 40ins of rain on some isolated areas of Haiti, raising fears of deadly mudslides and floods in the heavily deforested country.

In Jamaica, which lowered a hurricane warning to a tropical storm warning as Matthew tracked closer to Haiti, many people chose to stick out the rough rain and winds at home.

Local government minister Desmond McKenzie said all but four residents of the Port Royal area near the Kingston airport refused to board buses and evacuate.

Matthew briefly reached the top classification, Category 5, becoming the strongest hurricane in the region since Felix in 2007.

The US hurricane centre 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 threaten the US east coast.

A hurricane warning was posted for much of the Bahamas, where the storm was expected to move along the eastern length of the island chain starting early on Wednesday.

As of 11pm (4am GMT), the storm was centred about 100 miles south of Tiburon, Haiti, and 190 miles south west of Port-au-Prince. It was moving north at 7mph.

Cuba's government declared a hurricane alert for six eastern provinces and removed traffic lights from poles in the city of Santiago to keep them from falling due to heavy wind.

Matthew's centre was expected to make landfall in Cuba about 50 miles east of the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, where authorities evacuated about 700 spouses and children of service members on military transport planes to Florida.

The US installation has a population of about 5,500, including 61 men held at the detention centre for terror suspects.