With Hurricane Matthew forecast to strike Jamaica and the southern coast of Haiti by Monday morning, residents and government officials in the Caribbean nations prepared for the powerful storm to bring heavy rains, high winds and the risk of life-threatening floods and mudslides.
A hurricane warning was issued early Sunday morning for Jamaica and Haiti where government officials performed last-minute preparations. Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness toured parts of the country as fishermen and other small boat operators were ordered to remain inland for the storm.
A hurricane warning was also in effect for eastern Cuba from Camaguey southeastward to Guantánamo, and could be needed for portions of the Bahamas on Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
"Florida still needs to remain alert," according to the National Hurricane Center.
Although the storm briefly reached Category 5 strength late Friday night, Matthew was downgraded to a Category 4 early Saturday with sustained winds as low as 145 mph. Sustained winds surged back up to 150 mph Saturday afternoon. The storm is moving slowly Sunday at 3 mph.
Tropical winds and rain are expected to start to affect Jamaica and Haiti by late Sunday.
At 11 a.m. Sunday, Matthew was about 350 miles south/southwest of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince and 310 miles from Kingston, Jamaica. The storm began moving north/northwest, and forecasters said the track would continue on Sunday, followed by a turn toward the north Monday. The center of the hurricane is predicted to approach southwestern Haiti and Jamaica Monday.
We just can’t make the call.
Dennis Feltgen, National Hurricane Center, on potential impact to Florida
In Haiti, government officials placed the country on heightened alert, and advised Haitians living in low-lying areas near the southern and northwest coastlines to start preparing for Matthew.
“Unlike previous storms, this one will cause the seas to be very rough,” said Marie-Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of the Civil Protection disaster response office.
Jean-Baptiste said some fishing villages had already been evacuated and the country could expect “a big mobilization” throughout the regions expected to be impacted by the storm. Disaster response teams would be blanketing the streets warning Haitians to begin making preparations and evacuate if they live in communities prone to flooding and mudslides.
Forecasts call for Matthew to deliver its harshest impact to the southern peninsula and Grand Anse region, but the storm also could affect the West Department, which includes Port-au-Prince.
Matthew not only threatens to unleash flash floods and mudslides on a rain-soaked Haiti, but it also could derail the country’s Oct. 9 rerun presidential elections.
Election officials scrambled to prepare for the storm. The vote is being redone a year after the first round triggered allegations of fraud and plunged Haiti deeper into a political crisis.
The flood-prone southern city of Lea Cayes, which is in Matthew’s path, is Haiti’s third most populous city.
There are less than 600 shelters for the entire region, with only a capacity to shelter only 88,000 residents, far less than what would be needed if the storm wiped out homes.
The hurricane warning covers all of Jamaica, and the Haitian coast from the southern border with the Dominican Republic to the city of Môle-Saint-Nicolas in the island’s northwestern region.
Beyond Tuesday, however, forecasters are less confident about Matthew’s movement, said Dennis Feltgen, National Hurricane Center public affairs officer and meteorologist.
“The reason for that is there’s still considerable spread in the models,” he said, explaining that the American forecast models show Matthew moving closer to Florida while the European models predict the storm tracking further east.
“It could be anywhere from Florida to east of the Bahamas,” Feltgen said. “As a result, right now it’s way too early to tell if the state of Florida will see any hurricane impacts from Matthew. We just can’t make the call.”
In anticipation of the storm, the commander of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay ordered the evacuation of families and other so-called “non-essential personnel” from the remote outpost in southeast Cuba.
José Rubiera, of the Forecasting Center at Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology, said Matthew is a “serious threat” to the eastern part of the island, which was hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Most of the models take Matthew through the provinces of Camaguey and Granma, but Rubiera said several provinces could be affected late Monday or early Tuesday.
In Santiago de Cuba, where Sandy caused extensive damage four years ago, authorities said they would go house to house in vulnerable neighborhoods warning of the danger.
“We are going to eliminate all the risks possible and be especially vigilant along rivers, at dams and areas where the sea can penetrate,” Lázaro Expósito Canto, a member of the Party’s Central Committee in Santiago, told Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.
In Granma province, rationed food allotted for October went on sale a day early at stores where supplies were available and all bakeries were ordered to stay open through the weekend in Holguín so people could stock up on crackers and bread.
Across the eastern provinces, trees were being trimmed and sewers cleared in preparation for a swipe by Matthew, and students attending school in the countryside programs were evacuated. To prevent agricultural losses in Guantánamo province, more than 9,000 head of cattle were evacuated to safer areas and mature coffee beans were being harvested.
Storms with paths projected to parallel the mainland coast, like Matthew, are a major challenge for forecasters. Charley in 2004 surprised the southwest coast of Florida when it veered inland sooner than expected on a projected path along the Florida Gulf Coast.
Miami Herald writers Jovan Johnson and Julie K. Brown contributed to this report.