Hurricane Matthew is barreling northward through the eastern Caribbean, with Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas all lying in the path of its ferocious winds and flood-inducing rains. Haiti, in particular, is under a major threat from the Category 4 storm. The beleaguered nation, still struggling to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake, isMore
Hurricane Matthew came ashore in southern Haiti as a powerful Category 4 hurricane at 7 a.m. Tuesday, after lashing the country with winds up to 145 mph and torrential rains all night.
Matthew is the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in Haiti since Cleo in 1964, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, and has been a worst-case scenario for the impoverished nation, which is still struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake and widespread cholera epidemic.
Early reports have shown damage to structures, flooded city streets, and rivers swollen by rains that washed easily down denuded slopes. Haiti has a highly vulnerable population and historically the country has seen high death tolls even from much weaker storms. It could take days to get a full picture of the devastation wrought by Matthew, as many of the worst-hit communities are very remote and isolated.
Next in Matthew’s path are eastern Cuba and the Bahamas, which will likely see significant damage, but are better equipped to evacuate residents and tourists. The National Hurricane Center has also issued the first tropical storm and hurricane watches for the U.S., both in South Florida. The longer-term forecast, while still uncertain, has Matthew making landfall in North Carolina as early as Saturday.
Haiti Impacts and Aftermath
The brunt of Matthew’s winds and rains were felt along the Tiburon Peninsula, where the city of Les Cayes, a centerpiece of Haiti’s tourism industry, is situated. Matthew’s eye came on shore near Les Anglais, about 35 miles west-northwest of Les Cayes, putting the city in the worst part of the storm for storm surge.
“The situation in Les Cayes is catastrophic, the city is flooded, you have trees lying in different places and you can barely move around, the wind has damaged many houses and taken away their rooftops,” Deputy Mayor Marie Claudette Regis Delerme told Reuters.
Photos and video of damage to structures, downed trees, and flooded streets are already trickling out on social media, though it will likely take days for the full scope of damage to emerge from the remote, isolated villages that were in some of the worst parts of the storm.
Matthew’s rains, which were expected to reach up to 40 inches in isolated spots, were the main concern, because they fell on steep terrain heavily denuded of trees and topsoil. Those conditions mean the ground cannot soak up the excess water and washes down the slopes, bringing debris along with it, toward coastal communities.
— Jacqueline Charles (@Jacquiecharles) October 4, 2016
Matthew’s impacts will last long after its rains and winds have left the island: Many villagers depend on subsistence farming or fishing for their livelihoods, and it is likely the storm will destroy many crops and wash away boats. With rudimentary roads likely washed out, it will be a challenge for recovery teams to reach these areas.
There are also serious concerns that cholera, inadvertently introduced by U.N. peacekeepers after the earthquake, could once again spread with the floodwaters.
Jacqueline Charles, a reporter for the Miami Herald in Port-au-Prince, told NPR’s Morning Edition that the cash-strapped interim government — scheduled to hold already-delayed elections this weekend — didn’t have the means to fund buses to evacuate residents of vulnerable areas, like the Cité Soleil slum in the city. Charles said she spoke to residents who were eager to leave for shelters but had no means of getting to them.
Other residents are loath to leave their homes for fear of what few possessions they have being stolen. It is only when conditions reach their peak, often in the middle of the night, that they try to flee.
“That’s when people begin to run and that’s when people lose their lives,” Charles told NPR. Only about 6,000 people were in the 1,300 available shelters, according to Haiti’s civil protection agency.
U.S. Impacts Becoming Clearer
Next in Matthew’s path is eastern Cuba, where residents have been boarding up homes and businesses and the government has organized evacuation efforts.
The Weather Channel’s Mike Seidel reported that high waves already caused damage to some beachfront structures there, though, like in Haiti, heavy rains falling on steep terrain are the major concern there.
The Cuban government, though, is much better equipped to evacuate residents, and death tolls there are usually much lower than in other Caribbean countries.
— Mike Seidel (@mikeseidel) October 4, 2016
While Matthew’s core was somewhat disrupted by its interaction with the rough Haitian terrain, it stayed a strong Category 4 storm, and is expected to regain its structure as it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf of Gonave and the Bahamas.
Unlike Haiti and Cuba, the main threat to the Bahamas is storm surge, which could reach 10 to 15 feet, overwashing small, low-lying islands, according to storm surge expert Hal Needham.
The most recent forecast from the National Hurricane Center had Matthew maintaining major hurricane status (defined as Category 3 or higher) through the Bahamas and up along the eastern coast of Florida.
Matthew has maintained Category 4-5 strength for more than 80 hours, the longest for any Atlantic hurricane in October and the longest for any month since Igor in 2010, according to hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach.
The potential U.S. impacts from Matthew are still somewhat uncertain, though it has looked increasingly likely that at least some part of the Southeast coast will be affected. The center of the storm looks to stay just offshore until it reaches the border of North and South Carolina, where it could potentially come ashore as a hurricane, though not a major one. Unfavorable winds are likely to weaken the storm before then.
With its 11 a.m. Eastern Time update on Tuesday, the NHC issued its first tropical storm and hurricane watches for parts of South Florida. Those watches, as well as warnings, are likely to change and include areas further north as the storm gets closer.
The U.S. has not been hit by a major hurricane since Wilma in October 2005, though as Sandy and other storms have made clear, even weaker storms can cause immense damage. Hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher have been increasing in the Atlantic basin, though; it is unclear whether this could be due to the influence of global warming or other climate patterns.
But with that dearth of strong landfalling storms, officials are concerned that coastal communities that have seen large population booms could be at greater threat. Needham is particularly concerned about coastal areas of Georgia and southern South Carolina, which haven’t seen a major event in some time.
Florida has declared a statewide emergency and North Carolina has declared one for 66 counties in order to mobilize state resources. Emergency managers and forecasters are warning residents to heed all warnings and evacuation orders.
“If Hurricane Matthew directly impacts Florida, there could be massive destruction which we haven’t seen since Hurricane Andrew devastated Miami-Dade County in 1992,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement. “That is why we cannot delay and must prepare for direct impact now.”