As Hurricane Matthew’s outer bands began pounding Jamaica and southwest Haiti Monday, Caribbean countries raced to finish preparations and evacuate residents from vulnerable areas.
In Haiti, government officials went door to door warning residents. Cuban authorities organized a mass exodus, evacuating more than 430,000 from the southeast coast. The Dominican Republic relocated another 13,000 people in advance of the fierce Category 4 storm, while Jamaica sent buses to ferry residents from harbor towns. U.S. Naval officials shipped about 700 family members from its base at Guantánamo Bay to Pensacola.
Even with preparations, the massive, slow-moving storm is raising concerns about causing widespread destruction. If it hits Haiti, Matthew would be the first major hurricane to strike a direct blow to the vulnerable island in 50 years.
The state of Florida was also bracing for the worst, even while forecast tracks continue to show the storm skirting the east coast. Monday afternoon, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state, cautioning that forecast models that have so far kept Matthew offshore could change.
"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."
At 2 p.m. Monday, the National Hurricane Center reported that Matthew’s sustained winds remained at 140 mph as it crawled north about 6 mph. The storm was located 250 miles southwest of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti and is expected to dump up to two feet of rain on the country, with as much as 40 inches possible in some places. A buoy near the storm early Monday recorded a wave height of nearly 34 feet.
Seas churned up by the massive storm already have claimed two victims in Haiti near the coastal town of Les Cayes — a fisherman whose body washed ashore Saturday and another whose body was found a little later.
A five-day forecast keeps the storm just off Florida’s coast, headed toward the Carolinas. But forecasters warned Monday that the state should not yet rule out damaging waves and winds, or even a direct hit. Beyond three days, track forecasts can be off by as much as 175 miles.
“We are not guaranteeing the hurricane is going to follow this exact path,” Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb said. “We still cannot rule out a direct hurricane impact for some locations in the state of Florida.”
Matthew is expected to pick up speed tonight as the center approaches southwestern Haiti and nears eastern Cuba late Tuesday. The storm will likely reach the southeastern and central Bahamas Tuesday night and Wednesday. Rain across the region could be “staggering,” Knabb said, raising the risk of dangerous mudslides. Parts of Cuba are expected to get 8 to 12 inches, with as much as 20 inches in some locations. Eastern Jamaica, on the storm’s weaker side, could still get 5 to 10 inches, with as much as 20 inches in some locations.
“We will be measuring rainfall in feet, not inches,” Knabb said.
Hurricane force winds spread across 70 miles. Tropical storm force winds covered 370 miles.
The massive storm is also expected to generate dangerous storm surges, with massive waves likely to raise water well in advance of the storm’s arrival. Forecasters warned the south coast of Haiti could see a surge of 7 to 10 feet. Cuba’s southern coast could get 7 to 11 feet. Ten to 15 feet is forecast for the Central and southeastern Bahamas.
Hurricane force winds will likely reach Haiti tonight and eastern Cuba on Tuesday. Matthew could weaken slightly as it passes over the mountainous islands, but forecasters warn it will likely remain a powerful hurricane when it reaches the southeastern Bahamas late Tuesday.
With punishing weather already hitting the islands Monday, people began seeking shelter. In Jamaica’s eastern parish of St. Thomas, where streets were already beginning to flood Monday, more than 700 people left homes in vulnerable, coastal areas. A 200-bed shelter in Kingston was at twice its capacity, prompting the Salvation Army to put out an urgent call for mattresses and cots.
Others, however, ignored warnings. In the old port city of Port Royal at the mouth of Kingston Harbor, Government Minister Desmond McKenzie said two buses sent to evacuate residents ferried only two adults and two children to safety. Others in the neighborhood insisted on staying to protect their homes.
In Haiti, authorities went door to door in the south coast cities of Les Cayes and Jeremie to warn people. At least 1,200 people were evacuated to shelters in schools and churches. Schools were also shuttered in Port-Au-Prince, where residents lined up at gas stations and emptied supermarket shelves.
Some worried the city of roughly a million people would not fare well. “We are not prepared,” unemployed mason Fritz Achelus said as he watched water pool on a downtown street.
Haiti’s dire record of poundings from hurricanes goes back decades, said Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel followed a similar path to Matthew, killing 400 before striking the U.S. in the Carolinas. Nearly a decade later, about 7,000 people died when Hurricane Flora struck and dumped nearly five feet of rain in three days.
Even without a direct hit, damage on the island can be brutal. At least 1,200 died after Hurricane Gordon brushed the island in 1994 and in 2004, Jeanne triggered lethal mudslides and flooding as a tropical depression that killed more than 3,000.
“The thing with Haiti is the winds are going to stink but honestly for them, the thing that’s much worse is the rain,” Klotzbach said. “You could see a death toll in the thousands. That’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
Matthew is also moving at half the speed of an average Caribbean hurricane, raising the risk for even more rain, he said.
Jamaica, Haiti and the Cuban provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Granma and Las Tunas all remain under a hurricane warning. The government of the Bahamas has also issued a hurricane warning for the southeastern Bahamas, including the Inaguas, Mayaguana, Acklins, Crooked Island, Long Cay, and Ragged Island.
Wadson Cledanor, the technical coordinator in charge of the southern region, said the body of a missing fisherman was recovered Saturday in in Port Salut. Another man, he said, was also reported missing Sunday after his canoe when the canoe broke apart in the sea near the southern city of Aquin. Three others in the canoe swam to safety and reported the missing man.
Flooding has already been reported in two sections of Dame Marie in the nearby Grand' Anse department.
American Airlines ended up canceling more than four dozen flights. It updated its travel policy with waivers in place for 13 central Caribbean airports that may be impacted by Matthew. The policy can be found on its aa.com website.
The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday also posted alerts for Port Miami, the Miami River, Port Everglades, the Port of Palm Beach, the Port of Ft. Pierce and all other South Florida terminals and facilities in advance of the storm, requiring vessels to contact the port commander if they plan to remain. The agency advised other vessels to find safe harbor. Drawbridges may not operate in winds over 25 mph, the Coast Guard said.
In Guantánamo Bay, U.S. Navy Captain David Culpepper told residents Saturday via Radio Gitmo to prepare for the possibility of the base taking a direct hit from a Category 3 or 4 hurricane.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro and a group of cabinet ministers arrived in Santiago de Cuba on Saturday to personally oversee hurricane preparations in the six eastern provinces that could be affected. Radio Rebelde reported Sunday evening that nearly 252,000 residents of vulnerable areas of Santiago province were being evacuated.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy walloped Santiago, causing heavy losses followed by a slow and arduous recovery period. Sandy left 11 dead in its wake in Cuba and damaged 137,000 homes in Santiago alone. Sandy was also the first storm to strike Jamaica in 24 years, causing about $100 million in damage.
“We’re preparing with a lot of discipline, a lot of organization, taking into account the experiences we gained from Sandy,” Lázaro Expósito Canto, first secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago, said on Cuban national television.
“I believe we are very well prepared — better prepared then we were for Sandy,” he said.
Cuba canceled all flights to Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey, Guantánamo, Moa, Baracoa, Manzanillo, Bayamo and Las Tunas until further notice. International flights from the island to Port au Prince, Santo Domingo, Fort de France in Martinique, Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe and Caracas were also canceled. Cuba’s Empresa Ómnibus Nacionales said that all bus travel from Havana and the provinces to the eastern part of the island from Las Tunas to Guantánamo would be suspended as of 5 a.m. Monday.
Stores were open until 10 p.m. this weekend to allow residents of the eastern provinces to stock up on hurricane supplies. Shelters were being prepared and workers were trimming trees and clearing storm sewers Sunday afternoon. The whine of chain saws could be heard in Santiago neighborhoods as neighbors and state workers cut trees and branches expected to threaten roofs in high winds.
In an effort to improve computer models forecasting Matthew’s future track, hurricane hunter flights that investigate the storm are being increased to every six hours. A G-IV capable of high-altitude missions will also be making twice daily flights to gather information around and in advance of Matthew, said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. Local weather offices are also increasing the release of weather balloons to collect information every six hours, he said.
“There’s a lot of balls up in the air right now,” he said. “So we’re going to get as much data as we can into these models.”
Miami Herald writers Mimi Whitefield, Carol Rosenberg, Jim Wyss, Jovan Johnson and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Staff writer Jacqueline Charles reported from Haiti.