PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The outer bands of powerful Hurricane Matthew drenched Haiti on Monday, flooding streets and sending people scrambling to emergency shelters as the Category 4 storm threatened to hit the hemisphere’s poorest nation overnight with life-threatening winds, rains and storm surge.
Matthew had sustained winds of 140 mph (220 kph) Monday evening, up from 130 mph (210 kph) earlier in the day. Its center was expected to pass near or over the southwestern tip of impoverished Haiti on Tuesday morning before heading to eastern Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center 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 center. “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 urged shantytown residents living next to a muddy river to take shelter at a local school where cots were set up. While some went, many refused fearing 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 officials from 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 confirmeed death in Haiti brought the total for the storm to at least three. One man died Friday in Colombia and a 16-year-old was killed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Sept. 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.
“We are continuing to mobilize teams in the south to move people away from dangerous areas,” Jean-Baptiste said.
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 tin-and-tarp houses. But most were just praying they would get through the storm without getting hurt.
“I know my house could easily blow away. All I can do is pray and then pray some more,” Ronlande Francois said by the tarp-walled shack where she lives with her unemployed husband and three children.
In Port-au-Prince, schools were closed while cars lined up at gas stations and shoppers cleared shelves at supermarkets as a light 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 downtown street.
Forecasters said the storm could dump as much as 40 inches (100 centimeters) of rain on some isolated areas of Haiti, raising fears of deadly mudslides and floods in the heavily deforested country.
In Jamaica, which discontinued a hurricane warning late Monday afternoon and replaced it with a tropical storm warning as Matthew tracked closer to Haiti, many people chose to stick it out 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 is one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent history and briefly reached the top classification, Category 5, becoming the strongest hurricane in the region since Felix in 2007.
The U.S. hurricane center 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 U.S. East Coast.
“Although our track is to the east of Florida, interests there should remain vigilant and we can’t rule out the possibility of impacts,” Pasch said.
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 Wednesday.
As of 8 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), the storm was centered about 200 miles (325 kilometers) southwest of Port-au-Prince. It was moving north at 8 mph (13 kph).
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 center was expected to make landfall in Cuba about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, where authorities evacuated about 700 spouses and children of service members on military transport planes to Florida.
The U.S. installation has a population of about 5,500, including 61 men held at the detention center for terrorism suspects. Navy Capt. David Culpepper, the base commander, said emergency shelters had been set up and authorities were bracing for storm surge and heavy rain that could threaten some low-lying areas, including around the power plant and water desalination facility.
“We have no choice but to prepare ourselves to take a frontal assault if you will,” Culpepper said.
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami; Ramon Espinosa in Santiago, Cuba; Howard Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica; and Evens Sanon in Haiti contributed to this report.