Monday 25 September 2017

'People will lose everything' - Hurricane Matthew's threat grows

Hurricane Matthew approaches (Pic via AP)
Hurricane Matthew approaches (Pic via AP)

Makini Brice and Joseph Guyler Delva

Hurricane Matthew edged closer to Haiti on Monday, bringing 130- mile-per-hour winds and torrential rain that could wreak havoc in the Caribbean nation, but some 2,000 people in one coastal town refused to evacuate.

The center of Matthew, a violent Category 4 storm, is expected to near southwestern Haiti and Jamaica on Monday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Crawling north toward Haiti's Les Cayes, Jamaica and Cuba at 6 miles per hour, the storm could be just as slow leaving, giving its winds and rain more time to cause damage.

"We are worried about the slow pace of Hurricane Matthew, which will expose Haiti to much more rain, and the country is particularly vulnerable to flooding," said Ronald Semelfort, director of Haiti's national meteorology center.

The storm comes at a bad time for Haiti. The poorest country in the Americas is set to hold a long-delayed presidential election next Sunday.

A combination of weak government and precarious living conditions make the country particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. More than 200,000 people were killed when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck in 2010.

"Even in normal times, when we have rain we have flooding that sometimes kills people," said Semelfort, comparing Matthew to 1963's Hurricane Flora, which swept away entire villages and killed thousands in Haiti.

Matthew is expected to produce between 15 to 40 inches (38 to 101 cm) of rain in parts of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, forming potentially fatal flash floods and landslides, the NHC said.

In Jamaica, dawn broke on Monday to reveal partially blue skies and only a slight breeze, making it harder for officials to convince some of the vulnerable to evacuate.

Nonetheless, many residents had already boarded up windows and flocked to supermarkets to stock up on food, water, flashlights and beer.

Charles Bernimolin, the team leader of a U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) delegation that had flown into Kingston, remained worried, despite projections that showed the storm sparing Jamaica the worst of its fury.

"We are always concerned. The track is not important," he said. "The important thing is that it is moving very, very slowly and is very big.

"If I were Jamaican, I would take a Category 5 storm that moves very quickly, rather than this. The quantity of water, the landslides - the people will lose everything."

In Cuba, which Matthew is due to reach on Tuesday, evacuation operations were well underway, with most tourists in the eastern town of Santiago de Cuba moved inland and given instructions on where to shelter in hotels during the hurricane.

Although many people had voluntarily shifted their belongings into neighbors' houses, with some even hunkering down in cliff-side caves they said were safe, the sun was shining on Monday morning, and some locals chose to fish in the port area.

"I won't take shelter until the wind picks up some more," said Erixan Cuevas, 40, a security guard who was fishing with friends at Santiago's port. "We are pretty worried."

Matthew was about 220 miles (354 km) southeast of Kingston at 8 a.m. EDT Monday and moving north toward Haiti, the NHC said.

In Haiti, some streets were already flooded in Les Cayes, a town of about 70,000 people. But Haitian officials said about 2,000 residents of the La Savane neighborhood of Les Cayes refused to heed government calls to leave their seaside homes, even though they were just a few miles from where the center of the hurricane is forecast to make landfall.

Early on Monday morning, most people in Les Cayes were still at home, just feet away from the sea. But closer to the town center, many were out and about, even though schools were closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Poor Haitians are at times reluctant to leave their homes in the face of impending storms, fearing their belongings will be stolen.

The chief of police for the southern region, Luc Pierre, said it was almost impossible to evacuate such a large number of people.

"I would have to arrest all those people and take them to a safe place. This is very difficult," he said, adding that the power had already gone off in the town.

Only a few families had opted to move to a high school in La Savane, designated as a shelter for up to 600 people. On Sunday night it was without electricity and lit only by candlelight.

"There are babies crying here; there is nothing at all," said Nadja, 32, who was pregnant with her fourth child.

Reuters

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