Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, blasted the Bahamas on Thursday as it headed for the southeastern United States after killing at least 140 people, mostly in Haiti, on its deadly northward march.
Matthew, carrying winds of 220 km/h, was “relentlessly pounding” the northwestern part of the island chain en route to Florida’s Atlantic coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The hurricane was likely to remain a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as it approached the United States, where it could either take direct aim at Florida or brush along the state’s coast through Friday night, the center said, warning of “potentially disastrous impacts.”
Hurricane conditions were expected in parts of Florida by later on Thursday.
Some 136 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighbourhoods earlier in the week. Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic, which neighbours Haiti.
“(It) got hit extremely hard,” said Guillaume Albert Moleon, Interior Ministry spokesman.
Matthew mashed concrete walls and tore away rooftops, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee for their lives.
‘Nothing is going well’
In the southwest seaport of Les Cayes, many were searching for clean water on Thursday as they lugged mattresses and other scant belongings they were able to salvage.
“Nothing is going well,” said Jardine Laguerre, a teacher. “The water took what little money we had. We are hungry.”
Authorities and aid workers were just beginning to get a clear picture of what they fear is the country’s biggest disaster in years.
In Haiti’s southern peninsula towns where Matthew arrived around daybreak Tuesday with 235 km/h winds, there was wreckage and misery everywhere.
“The floodwater took all the food we have in the house. Now we are starving and don’t have anything to cook,” said farmer Antoine Louis as he stood in brown water up to his thighs in the doorway of his deluged concrete shack.
‘We’ve lost everything we own’
In Aquin, a coastal town outside Les Cayes, people trudged through mud around the wreckage of clapboard houses and tiny shops.
Cenita Leconte was one of many who initially ignored calls to evacuate vulnerable shacks before Matthew roared ashore. The 75-year-old was thankful she finally complied and made it through the terrifying ordeal with her life.
“We’ve lost everything we own. But it would have been our fault if we stayed here and died,” she told The Associated Press as neighbours poked through wreckage hoping to find at least some of their meagre possessions.
Civil aviation authorities reported counting 3,214 destroyed homes along the southern peninsula, where many families live in shacks with sheet metal roofs and don’t always have the resources to escape harm’s way.
The government has estimated at least 350,000 people need some kind of assistance after the disaster, which UN deputy special representative for Haiti Mourad Wahba has called the country’s worst humanitarian crisis since the devastating earthquake of 2010.
International aid groups are already appealing for donations for a lengthy recovery effort in Haiti, the hemisphere’s least developed and most aid-dependent nation.
U.S. braces for Hurricane Matthew
In coming days, U.S. military personnel equipped with nine helicopters were expected to start arriving to help deliver food and water to hard-hit areas.
When Category 4 Hurricane Flora hit in 1963, it killed as many as 8,000 people.
As recovery efforts in Haiti continued, Matthew pummeled the Bahamian capital of Nassau on Thursday with winds of 220 km/h.
The head of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Authority, Capt. Stephen Russell, told The Associated Press there were many downed trees and power lines, but no reports of casualties.
Authorities shut down the power grid to protect it against the winds.
In nearby Cuba, Matthew blew across that island’s sparsely populated eastern tip, destroying dozens of homes and damaging hundreds in the island’s easternmost city, Baracoa. But the government oversaw the evacuation of nearly 380,000 people and strong measures were taken to protect communities and infrastructure, U.N. officials said.
Matthew was on a path forecast to take it close to the U.S. East Coast, where authorities were carrying out large-scale evacuations. Matthew had dropped slightly to a Category 3 storm after crossing land in Haiti and eastern Cuba, but strengthened once again to a Category 4, officials said.
It was located about 290 kilometres southeast of West Palm Beach in Florida and was moving at 22 km/h at 11 a.m. ET.