Hurricane Matthew, slow moving and devastatingly powerful, made landfall on the southwestern tip of Haiti early Tuesday morning, pounding the impoverished island with drenching rains and flooding storm surge.
Flood waters in some parts of Haiti were up to people’s shoulders in the southern seaport of Les Cayes, and sea water rushed into people’s homes in Cote de Fer, according to radio reports.
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Some 10.6 million people are in the storm's path in Haiti, and another 11.2 million in Cuba, according to the United Nations.
"The situation in the Nippes is truly catastrophic," Haitian Sen. Nenel Cassy told the Miami Herald.
“The winds are making so many bad noises. We’re just doing our best to stay calm,” Jenniflore Desrosiers, who was hunkered down with her family an a cinderblock home, told The Associated Press.
A hurricane warning remains in effect for the Cuban provinces of Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Granma and Las Tunas. A warning was issued for southeastern, central and northwestern Bahamas.
Meanwhile, Florida remained in a state of emergency with much of the state under the Category 4 storm’s “cone of concern,” and the National Hurricane Center is likely to post tropical storm and hurricane watches for portions of the state as early as 11 a.m. Tuesday. Forecasters urged residents along much of the southeastern coast of the U.S. to monitor the storm, though it’s still uncertain if Matthew will make a direct hit or skirt the coast.
Gov. Rick Scott, in Marathon Tuesday morning, urged state residents to be prepared for the worst even though the storm remains 600 miles away. Forecasters predict that the storm will veer to the west, bringing tropical-winds to South Florida.
At a briefing Tuesday morning, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Mayor Gimenez says he expects county to be under a tropical storm watch later in the day.
"We have no evacuation plans at this point," Gimenez said, cautioning residents to prepare for tropical-force winds. “Should the storm shift west, we would have to evacuate certain areas.’’
Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho said Tuesday that he doesn't expect to consider closing schools until Thursday. But after-school activities may be canceled Wednesday afternoon as the storm approaches.
"They expect the storm to be east of us," Gimenez said after a weather briefing with top officials. "Tomorrow morning we'll have a better sense of the track of the storm."
"We're telling residents today would be a good day to make preparations," he added.
At 8 a.m. Tuesday, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Matthew had made landfall around 7 a.m. in Les Anglais in southwestern Haiti. It was moving at 9 mph. Sustained winds are 145 mph, keeping Matthew a fierce Category 4 hurricane. Forecasters are not expecting it to weaken much as it moves toward eastern Cuba and the Bahamas in the next few days.
In Haiti, there were already reports of a mudslide in Anse Milieu in southern Haiti, and flooding was widespread. The country has a history of deadly flooding from past storms and Matthew, the strongest hurricane to strike the island in decades, could be catastrophic.
Citing "life-threatening rains, winds and storm surges," the USAID released $400,000 in initial aid to mount a humanitarian response to the storm.
Six years after a devastating earthquake killed more than 200,000 people, experts say the island is unprepared to handle another disaster. More than 55,000 residents still live in tents and makeshift shelters. Many others live in unstable homes with flimsy roofs.
"We are at the office and rains and winds are very strong," said Dr. Fonie Pierre, head of Catholic Relief Services in Les Cayes. "We are 20 people at the office, CRS staff and members of the emergency operation center. Until now we are feeling safe."
Haiti's Civil Protection tweeted that the number of people who had sought shelter from the storm in the middle of the night had more than doubled to 6,416 in the southern region.
Hurricane Matthew poses two deadly risks to the island nation: first, the flood waters — and then cholera, a waterborne disease that has already killed more than 9,000 and sickened some 700,000 after the earthquake.
The disaster preparedness office confirmed that several coastal communities were flooded and in Port-au-Prince, the relentless rains were accompanied by strong winds.
In Les Cayes, many homes and a radio station were damaged, with winds carrying away the station's satellite dish. Catholic Relief Services also lost its internet satellite dish.
A tropical storm warning was in effect in Turks and Caicos, where all airports are set to close at 9:30 a.m.
Cuban President Raul Castro met with the National Defense Council in Guantanamo as the island braces for the storm. Castro already visited Santiago de Cuba, which is most likely to face the brunt of the wind and rain. Evacuations are already underway, Reuters reported.
While forecasters have been wary about the long-range forecast — beyond three days, tracks can be off by as much as 175 miles — they said models on Monday moved west in response to the strengthening of a subtropical ridge.
A strong ridge would steer the storm to the northwest. That shift also followed an earlier westward slide, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
"The morning run was generally a little further west, but not like eye-popping. And also it’s one run," he said. "So in this round of runs, they saw that ridge as stronger. We’ll see if that continues."
Hurricane advisories for the state could be issued on Tuesday.
With the new forecast track shifting the cone over a large swath of the state, including South Florida, state officials warned residents to get serious about preparations. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for the entire state.
"If Matthew directly impacts Florida," he said, "there will be massive destruction we have not seen in years, comparable to what we saw in Hurricane Andrew."
Forecasters said Matthew would likely pick up speed into Tuesday and make a turn toward the northwest on Wednesday. The center of the storm will move over Haiti overnight, eastern Cuba on late Tuesday and across the southeastern Bahamas late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The storm could weaken slightly as it crosses Haiti and Cuba, forecasters said, but should remain a major hurricane as it nears Florida.
Around the Caribbean, countries evacuated thousands of residents as conditions worsened.
Forecasters said southern Haiti and southwestern Dominican Republic can expect 15 to 25 inches of rain and downpours of up to 40 inches. Eastern Cuba, northwestern Haiti and the southeastern Bahamas could see up to a foot of rain.
Punishing waves could push the storm surge to between 10 and 15 feet in parts of Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, forecasters said.
Ward said Jamaica may avoid the worst of the storm, but receive enough rain that flooding will occur because of poor drainage. The government dropped its hurricane warning Monday afternoon.
Haiti authorities said they will hold emergency meeting Tuesday on fate of Sunday's presidential and legislative elections.