Hurricane Matthew claims first victims as it churns up Caribbean

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Hurricane Matthew claimed its first victims, officials said Monday, October 3, leaving one person dead and another missing in Haiti as it churns through the Caribbean, the most menacing storm in nearly a decade.

Strong winds buffeted the southern coast of the Americas' most destitute country, where flimsy homes and buildings leave residents particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

Flooding is also being reported in some areas of Jamaica as the Category 4 storm creeps closer from the south, news reports said. 

Cuba ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 people from the east of the island.

"No one likes to leave their homes, but the sea is going to rise and that is very dangerous," said Pedro Gonzalez, a retired chef who had to leave a fishing islet where he lives off the city of Santiago, one of six areas under a hurricane warning.

His sister Ana went with him along with their 100-year-old mother Marina, who uses a wheelchair.

"I would not stay on that cay for all the money in the world," said Ana, who recalled the horror of living through Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when 11 Cubans died.

The authorities are not forcing residents to leave, however, and many have chosen to stay to prevent looting.

Devastating blow

Matthew is expected to hit southwestern Haiti late Monday, packing powerful winds and torrential rain, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center said.

Cuba and the Bahamas also lie along the likely path of destruction.

Haiti, eastern regions of Cuba and the southeastern Bahamas have been placed under a hurricane warning. In Haiti, the alert level has risen to the maximum level of red.

Monstrous storm swells of up to 3.3 meters (11 feet) were forecast off Cuba and Haiti, the NHC said.

"This is shaping up to be a devastating blow," said Domenica Davis, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel.

A fisherman drowned Friday, September 30, in Haiti and another went missing Sunday, October 2, both off the southern coast, civil protection officials said.

At 2100 GMT, the eye of the storm had reached 360 kilometers (225 miles) southwest of Port-au-Prince, with lashing top-wind speeds of 225 kilometers per hour, the US hurricane center said.

The storm was creeping forward at 11 kilometers per hour.

It is expected to continue north, tearing across southern and eastern Cuba between Monday and Tuesday, October 4, as it moves toward the Bahamas.

Forecasts predict the hurricane will dump 40 to 60 centimeters (15 to 25 inches) of rain over southern Haiti with up to a meter possible in isolated areas.

"Life-threatening flash floods and mudslides are likely from this rainfall in southern and northwestern Haiti, the southwestern Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba," the NHC warned.

Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba prepare

Thousands are still living in tents in Haiti after the country's massive earthquake in 2010. Erosion is especially dangerous because of high mountains and lack of trees and bushes in areas where they have been cut for fuel.

The authorities evacuated more than 500 people Sunday from the southwestern city of Jeremie as a precaution. Nearly 1,000 have also been housed in temporary shelters in other southern regions.

Some were reluctant to leave, civil defense chief Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste said.

"My countrymen, do not be stubborn, do not say 'God is good' and will take care of you," interim president Jocelerme Privert said in an address to the nation.

"The dangerous areas will be evacuated," he added. "We have no interest in risking your lives."

The poorest country in the Americas is home to almost 11 million people, many living in fragile housing.  

In Jamaica, officials said the army and military reserves were called up to help deal with hurricane damage.

Buses were also being sent to flood-prone areas to move residents to shelters.

US embassies in Jamaica and Haiti closed Monday and Tuesday due to the storm.

In Cuba, President Raul Castro traveled to the southeastern city of Santiago to oversee emergency operations.

Matthew had the potential to become a storm for the ages, he warned residents.

"This is a hurricane. It's necessary to prepare for as if it were twice as powerful as Sandy," the Cuban leader said.

At the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – located along Matthew's predicted path – officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for all non-essential personnel and family members. The 61 remaining inmates in the base's prison are safe, US military officials said.

Forecasters predict the hurricane could hit the US East Coast around midweek. Florida and parts of North Carolina have declared states of emergency. –