PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti (CBSNewYork/AP) — Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti’s southwestern tip with howling, 145 mph winds Tuesday, tearing off roofs in the poor and largely rural area, uprooting trees and leaving rivers bloated and choked with debris. At least nine deaths were blamed on the storm during its week-long march across the Caribbean.
By nightfall, at least 11 deaths had been blamed on the powerful storm during its week-long march across the Caribbean. But with a key bridge washed out, impassable roads and phone communication cut off with Haiti’s hardest-hit area, there was no way to know how many people might be dead or injured.
CBS News reports the deadly storm swept away Haiti’s coastal town of Les Cayes.
“Whole houses. Everything is gone…. It’s like a bulldozer just passed by… I can tell you it’s a big disaster…” resident George Elie told CBS News.
Mourad Wahba, U.N. secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Haiti, said much of the local population had been forced from their homes, at least 10,000 people were in shelters and hospitals were overflowing and running short of water. The roof was blown off the hospital in the city of Les Cayes, he added.
Wahba’s statement called the hurricane’s destruction the “largest humanitarian event” in Haiti since the devastating earthquake of January 2010.
Matthew, slightly weakened but still a dangerous Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds, whipped at Cuba’s sparsely populated eastern tip Tuesday night, as it headed for a two-day run up the length of the Bahamas that would take it near the U.S. coast.
Twenty-foot waves pounded the seafront promenade in the Cuban town of Baracoa. Powerful winds rattled the walls of homes and heavy rain caused some flooding. But state media said late Tuesday there were no immediate reports of serious damage.
Hours after Matthew made landfall on Haiti’s now-marooned southwestern peninsula, government leaders said they couldn’t fully gauge the impact.
“What we know is that many, many houses have been damaged. Some lost rooftops and they’ll have to be replaced while others were totally destroyed,” Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph said.
At least five deaths were blamed on the storm in Haiti, including a 26-year-old man who drowned trying to rescue a child who fell into a rushing river, authorities said. The child was saved. The mayor in flooded Petit Goave reported two people died there, including a woman who was killed by a falling electrical pole.
Four deaths were recorded in the neighboring Dominican Republic and one each in Colombia and in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Forecasters said Matthew could hit Florida toward the end of the week and push its way up the East Coast over the weekend. The forecast triggered a rush by Americans to stock up on food, gasoline and other emergency supplies.
The dangerous Category 4 storm — at one point the most powerful hurricane in the region in nearly a decade — blew ashore around dawn in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, hitting a corner of Haiti where many people live in shacks of wood or concrete blocks. It unloaded heavy rain as it swirled on toward a lightly populated part of Cuba and the Bahamas.
The country’s Civil Protection Agency said many homes were damaged or destroyed. And people had to wade through flooded streets to rescue their belongings and find higher ground.
“It’s the worst hurricane that I’ve seen during my life,” said Fidele Nicolas, a civil protection official in Nippes, just east of where Matthew came ashore. “It destroyed schools, roads, other structures.”
CBS2’s Alice Gainer reports more than 6,000 people evacuated to shelters before the storm hit.
The storm left the peninsula that runs along the southern coast of Haiti cut off from the rest of the country. Many streets were impassable because of flooding, landslides or fallen trees. Local radio reported that the water was shoulder high in parts of the city of Les Cayes.
Milriste Nelson, a 65-year-old farmer in the town of Leogane, said his neighbors fled when the wind ripped the corrugated metal roof from their home. His own small yard was strewn with the fruit he depends on for his livelihood.
“All the banana trees, all the mangos, everything is gone,” Nelson said as he boiled breadfruit over a charcoal fire in the gray morning light. “This country is going to fall deeper into misery.”
Haitian authorities had tried to evacuate people from the most vulnerable areas ahead of the storm, but many were reluctant to leave their homes. Some sought shelter only after the worst was already upon them.
“Many people are now asking for help, but it’s too late because there is no way to go evacuate them,” said Fonie Pierre, director of Catholic Relief Services for the Les Cayes area, who was huddled in her office with about 20 people.
Matthew was expected to bring 15 to 25 inches of rain, and up to 40 inches in isolated places, along with up to 10 feet of storm surge and battering waves.
“They are getting everything a major hurricane can throw at them,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Relief efforts are already underway as U.S. aircraft carriers set sail from Virginia with supplies to help Haitians after the Category 4 storm.
In Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, cars drove through flooded street. In Jamaica, one road was washed away in a mudslide.
Matthew briefly reached the top classification, Category 5, as it moved across the Caribbean late last week, becoming the strongest hurricane in the region since Felix in 2007.
As of 8 p.m. EDT, the storm’s center was making landfall near Cuba’s sparsely populated eastern tip. It was moving north at close to 9 mph. Its sustained winds were 140 mph.
The center of the storm was projected to pass about 50 miles northeast of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The hurricane could force the relocation of detainees at Gitmo.
Workers in Cuba removed traffic lights from poles in the city of Santiago to keep them from getting blown away.
CBS2’s Vanessa Murdock reports Matthew will hit the Bahamas on Wednesday.
Along the eastern coast of Cuba, people were urged to head for higher ground as more than 300,000 people have reportedly been evacuated.
In the U.S., Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged coastal residents to prepare for the possibility of a direct hit and line up three days’ worth of food, water and medicine.
CBS2’s Hank Tester reports many Floridians are already heeding the warning and making preparations.
“Went through Wilma and Katrina and pretty much seen what devastation they can cause, so not taking any chances,” Bean Osborne said.
Emergency management officials are not announcing any evacuations at this point.
“We are expecting a 50 percent probability of tropical storm winds hitting Miami-Dade County on Thursday,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said. “The message is be prepared for tropical storm winds and make sure you have food and water for three days.”
The Red Cross put out a call for volunteers in South Carolina. And the White House said relief supplies were being moved to emergency staging areas in the Southeast.
“We do not know yet whether the center of Matthew will actually come ashore in Florida. That’s possible,” said Rick Knabb, director of the hurricane center.
Americans raced to supermarkets, gas stations and hardware stores, buying up groceries, water, plywood, tarps, batteries and propane. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she would issue an evacuation order Wednesday so that 1 million people would have time to leave the coast.
A state of emergency was already declared for 66 counties in North Carolina.
“We can’t gamble and we won’t gamble with the livelihood of people up and down the coast,” Gov. Pat McCrory said.
As dawn broke, people in the Haitian tourist town of Port Salut described howling winds and big waves slamming the beaches and washing over the coastal road.
“The winds are making so many bad noises. We’re just doing our best to stay calm,” said Jenniflore Desrosiers as she huddled with her family in her fragile cinderblock home, which had sprung numerous leaks from the rain.
The few places that were on the electrical grid had apparently lost power, and cellphone service was spotty.
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