Hurricane Matthew: Two million people in US urged to evacuate as Barack Obama warns of ‘serious storm’

  •  Hurricane Matthew churns towards Bahamas and Florida
  • Millions urged to evacuate in US
  • Florida told to prepare for 'direct hit'
  • Obama urges residents to heed warnings
  • At least 22 dead in Haiti
  • Large area of Haiti cut off

More than two million people have been ordered to evacuate from America's Southeastern coastline ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Matthew, with Florida's governor warning residents to "prepare for a direct hit".

Matthew struck the Bahamas after killing at least 22 people in Haiti and four in the Dominican Republican on Tuesday.

"I want to emphasise to the public – this is a serious storm," President Barack Obama said after a briefing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously."

Matthew was a dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph (190 kph) as it passed through the Bahamas, and it was expected to be very near Florida's Atlantic coast by Thursday evening.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley planned to call for more evacuations on Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state. Florida urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast, said Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for Governor Rick Scott. Georgia had around 50,000 people told to go.

Officials warned that the death toll could climb significantly once the full extent of the damage in Haiti is known.

The storm carved a path of devastation through southwestern Haiti, dumping boats and debris on coastal roads hit by surging seas and heavily flooding residential areas.

Some 80 percent of homes were damaged in Haiti's Sud Department, which has a population of more than 700,000, a government official said in a meeting with UN officials. Some 11,000 people were in shelters in the province.



                                                                    Path of Hurricane Matthew NOAA

Rescue workers struggled to reach remote towns on the Western tip of Haiti, which was hit head on by the storm. More than 24 hours after the storm made landfall with sustained winds of 145 miles-per-hour, only the most basic information was available about the devastation in the rural area.

Francois Anick Joseph, Haiti's interior minister, said: "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."

Still a powerful hurricane though reduced from Category 4 to Category 3, it will approach Florida overnight on Thursday and proceed up the US coast over the weekend.

Officials warned that the slow-moving hurricane could regain strength as it reaches the open ocean.


Two boys float in an old wooden box in an area flooded by heavy rains caused by Hurricane Matthew, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic CREDIT: AP

Its current path would see it pass just off the coast from Florida, but Governor  Scott cautioned that the course was unpredictable and said the storm would be deadly if residents failed to prepare.

"I can not emphasise enough that everyone in our state must prepare for a direct hit," he said. 

Those preparations were underway on Wednesday, as grocery stores in Florida were mobbed and running low on supplies. Some petrol stations reportedly ran out of fuel as residents finalised their evacuation plans.

Ms Haley spoke in dire terms on Wednesday of the potential destruction.


A man pushes a wheelbarrow as he wades across a flooded street while Hurricane Matthew passes through Port-au-Prince CREDIT: REUTERS

"If you do not leave you are putting a law enforcement officer or a national guardsman's life on the line when they have to go back and get you," she said.

Both South Carolina and Florida are popular tourist destinations, further complicating the planned evacuations.

Walt Disney World, which sits some 50 miles inland in Orlando, was operating normally on Wednesday, but the theme park said officials were monitoring the storm's progress.


Travel advice for those caught in the storm

Matt Bradley, regional security director at International SOS Americas, says anyone caught in the storm should take shelter and keep away from the windows. 

"The safest place to be is an underground shelter, basement or safe room," he told the Telegraph.

"If no underground shelter or safe room is available, a small, windowless interior room or hallway on the lowest level of a sturdy building is the safest alternative.


A girl tries to repair her umbrella that was broken by the wind, in tne commune of Cite Soleil, in the Haitian Capital Port-au-Prince CREDIT: HECTOR RETAMAL

"If you are not advised to evacuate, stay indoors, away from windows.

“If caught outside, immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and drive to the closest sturdy shelter. If flying debris is present, pull over and park."


South Carolina holds its breath as storm approaches

"It's not going to be a fast evacuation. It could take up to several hours," South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said. "If you can leave early, do that."

Matthew made landfall in Haiti shortly after daybreak Tuesday as an "extremely dangerous" Category Four storm – the maximum is five – near the southwestern town of Les Anglais, packing top winds of around 230 kilometers per hour, the NHC said.

It marked the first time in 52 years that a Category Four storm made landfall in Haiti.

Forecasters say the storm will also strike the Bahamas. 


Charge on East Coast has rattled US officials 

Hurricane Matthew's slog toward the East Coast has government officials worried about complacency, especially in South Florida, which hasn't seen a major hurricane in 11 years.

South Carolina's governor said she would issue an evacuation order Wednesday so that 1 million people would have time to leave the coast, and residents up and down the Eastern seaboard flocked to hardware stores, grocery aisles and gas stations to prepare for the powerful storm.


A resident runs in as flooded street as Hurricane Matthew roars over Baracoa, CubaCREDIT: RAMON ESPINOSA AP



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Presently a dangerous Category 3 storm with top sustained winds of 125 mph, Matthew was churning toward the southeastern Bahamas early Wednesday amid predictions it would be very near Florida's Atlantic coast by Thursday evening.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Matthew – recently a Category 4 storm and at one brief point a fierce Category 5 – will remain a powerful storm at least through Thursday night. It added that while maximum winds decreased slightly in recent hours, further fluctuations in intensity are possible in coming days.

Fears in the Bahamas

With Hurricane Matthew now taking aim at the Bahamas, Prime Minister Perry Christie has voiced concern about the potential impact on the sprawling archipelago off Florida's east coast.

"We're worried because we do not control nature," he said.

Hurricane warning expanded in Florida

The eye of Hurricane Matthew has moved off the northeastern coast of Cuba and forecasters have expanded the hurricane warning area in Florida.

The US National Hurricane Centre says the Category 4 storm's maximum sustained winds have decreased to 130 mph (215 kph) but it is expected to maintain strength through at least Thursday night. Matthew is moving north at 8 mph (13 kph).

Forecasters expect Matthew to move through the Bahamas on Thursday and be very near Florida's east coast by that evening.

The centre upgraded hurricane watches from Golden Beach to Sebastian Inlet and for Lake Okeechobee to hurricane warnings. The hurricane watch area has been extended north to the Flagler-Volusia county line.

Death toll rises to 11

Hours after Matthew made landfall on Haiti's now-marooned southwestern peninsula, government leaders say still can't fully gauge the impact, but Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph says there has been a lot of damage.

"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."

There have been at least 11 deaths from the hurricane so far.

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 neighbouring Dominican Republic and one each in Colombia and in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.


A man rides a bicycle past a tree uprooted by the winds of Hurricane Matthew in Leogane, Haiti CREDIT: AP

Aid groups brace for 'catastrophic damage'

Aid organisations are bracing for "catastrophic damage" in the impoverished nation's hardest hit regions.

The United States Agency for International Development has dispatched an elite disaster response team to the poorest nation in the Americas.

In an interview with AFP, Jeremy Konyndyk, who heads USAID's Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, said aid teams were preparing a "massive response."


A structure lays on the ground, brought down by the winds of Hurricane Matthew in Leogane, Haiti CREDIT: AP

Mr Konyndyk said OFDA had its initial response team ready as of Friday, with supplies – including sanitation necessities and shelter kits – ready to go in Haiti and Miami, Florida.

"It's a country that is prone to these kinds of natural disasters," he said. "We have pre-positioned supplies in Haiti at any given time."

Mr Konyndyk said Haitian airports were currently shut down, but ODFA will send more resources as soon as conditions permit.

"This is going to be a very major response for us."

"We anticipate it will be quite catastrophic," Mr Konyndyk said, with "severe damage to water availability and water infrastructure, which does raise the risk of waterborne diseases."

Preparations in US

Officials in coastal Hyde County, North Carolina, have issued a state of emergency and ordered the mandatory evacuation of visitors to Ocracoke Island beginning at 5 am on Wednesday, AP reports.

Residents and property owners on the island will have an additional 24 hours to make preparations before they, too, will be subject to a mandatory evacuation on Thursday.

Ocracoke Island's beaches area a tourist draw.

Flooding, but no casualties in Cuba so far

The hurricane is expected to move past Cuba during the night.

Heading north at a speed of 17 kilometers (10 miles) per hour, the hurricane was "extremely dangerous," with top winds of 220 kilometers) after hitting eastern Cuba around 2200 GMT, the Cuban weather service said.


Surf and wind from Hurricane Matthew crash on the waterfront in Baracoa, Cuba CREDIT:AP

The authorities reported significant flooding and waves up to five meters (16 feet) in coastal villages in the east – but no casualties so far.

'Worst hurricane I've seen'

The Civil Protection Agency in Haiti said many homes were damaged or destroyed.

"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."

Mourad Wahba, UN 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.

Cuba well prepared

Cuba's internationally recognised prevention and alert system is being tested again after the island was seriously battered by Hurricane Sandy four years ago. Eleven people died, some inside collapsed houses.

Local media and many officials have spent the past 48 hours tracking the hurricane's progress.

"The Cubans have shown an exemplary level of preparation," Jerome Faure, director for Cuba Oxfam, told AFP.

"It's enough to look at the number of lives saved during previous storms" compared to other countries in the region.

With top winds exceeding 220 kilometers an hour, Matthew is a Category Four storm on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale. Sandy was classified as Category Three when it crossed the island.

Guantanamo residents were urged to protect their windows with adhesive tape and cardboard, block their doors with iron rods and reinforce tin roofs with sandbags.

Alexis Vigo, an unemployed 45-year-old who lives with his mother, Barbara, in a colonial-style house built in 1968, said he felt "safe."

"But if it things go wrong we can evacuate."

Bridge collapse hampers aid efforts

The full scope of its toll, both human and material, remained unclear. Civil protection officials in Haiti said they were struggling to communicate with the south after Matthew's furious wind and rain blew down telephone lines.

A bridge that collapsed was on the only road linking Port-au-Prince to the peninsula that makes up southern Haiti.

"It's going to be difficult to find an alternative route," civil protection spokesman Edgar Celestin told AFP.


'The situation is catastrophic'

Haitian Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph says the damage to housing and crops in the country has been apparently extensive.

"It is too early to do a real assessment, but it has been very serious," Anick Joseph told Reuters.

Named for the sandy islands off its shore and twice destroyed by hurricanes in the 18th century, the Haitian port town Les Cayes has been hit hard by Matthew. Deputy Mayor Marie Claudette Regis Delerme, who fled a house in the town of about 70,000 when the wind ripped the roof off, said:


Cubans hunker down

Before Matthew hit, Cuba had evacuated some 316,000 people from the east of the island. In the city of Guantanamo, streets were deserted and streetlights dark.

One stalwart who stayed, 63-year-old Roberto Gates, ventured out to buy rum. "I have food for today and tomorrow, and then we'll see," Gates told AFP.


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Hurricane Matthew pummels eastern Cuba

(AFP) – The eye of Hurricane Matthew has reached eastern Cuba after the deadly storm ploughed through Haiti and the Dominican Republican, triggering mass floods and leaving at least seven dead, a US-based monitor said Tuesday.

"Northern eyewall of extremely dangerous Hurricane Matthew already pounding the eastern tip of Cuba," read the latest bulletin from the National Hurricane Center issued at 2100 GMT. 

Airlines waive fees for cancelled travel

Airlines are letting passengers change travel plans without penalty if their trip might be affected by Hurricane Matthew.

American Airlines said on Tuesday it will waive change fees on trips scheduled for Thursday or Friday to or from eight cities in Florida. The airline had already offered waivers on trips scheduled through Thursday in several Caribbean nations, including Cuba.

United Airlines said it would waive change fees and any difference in fare for customers scheduled to fly between Wednesday and Friday to, from or through five airports in Florida.

Delta Air Lines is waiving change fees on trips until Wednesday in the Caribbean and until Thursday at eight Florida destinations, although differences in the fare would still apply.

The fee to change a nonrefundable ticket on United, American and Delta is typically $200 for domestic flights and usually more for international trips.

Travellers whose flights are cancelled can get a refund. 

Barack Obama cancels Florida rally due to storm

President Barack Obama was planning to visit Florida on Friday to campaign on behalf of Hillary Clinton. With the Southeastern state lying in the path of Hurricane Matthew, the president has postponed the trip.


Unicef: millions of children at risk in Haiti

Unicef, the international charity, says four million children are at risk in Haiti as Hurricane Matthew batters the island.

“This is the worst storm Haiti has seen in decades and the damage will no doubt be significant,” said Marc Vincent, Unicef Representative in Haiti. “Water-borne diseases are the first threat to children in similar situations – our first priority is to make sure children have enough safe water.”

Unicef said in a statement:

Haiti is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake, with 55,000 people still living in shelters. The southern coast, where the storm is expected to hit the most, is one of the poorest and most densely populated parts of the country.

In a country where less than 1 in 5 people in rural areas have access to improved sanitation and 40 per cent of people use unsafe water sources, it is feared that the hurricane will worsen an already precarious situation.


Too early to know extent of damage in Haiti

We know the worrying strength of the storm- a category 4 hurricane arriving with winds of 145 miles-per-hour and threatening rains of up to 40 inches. 

We also know where it has struck- in Western Haiti with extreme weather also affecting the capital of Port au Prince and the neighbouring Dominican Republic. 

What we don't know as yet is just how bad the effects are in the largely rural areas that the eye of the storm is passing over this morning. It will take time for reports to emerge and, sadly, the death toll could already be far higher than we are able to report at the current time.

"It's much too early to know how bad things are, but we do know there are a lot of houses that have been destroyed or damaged in the south," Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, director of the country's civil protection agency said on Tuesday.

Four people killed in Dominican Republic

Officials in the Dominican Republican have said three children in Santo Domingo died when their home collapsed due to heavy rain, and an elderly woman was also killed by the storm.

That brings the confirmed death toll from Hurrican Matthew up to seven.

More than 9,000 Haitians wait out Matthew in shelters

Authorities in Haiti say more than 9,000 people have gathered in shelters to wait out the storm. Meanwhile, 130 children were evacuated from an orphanage in a shanty town and taken to a local school, and 1,000 prisoners were moved to a safer location.

"Everyone is trying to find a safe place to protect themselves, the situation is very difficult," Remiza Denize, mayor of Tiburon, said.  

Will Matthew maintain strength after landfall?

The most recent recordings show wind speeds reducing from 145 mph to  125 mph now that Hurricane Matthew has made landfall in Haiti. 

But that does not mean that the storm has weakened for good. It could regain strength as it approaches the Bahamas, or it could indeed become a less potent though still dangerous storm.

Florida governor: "Prepare for the worst, hope for the best"

Tuesday is a day of preparations in Florida. If Matthew's course does take it directly over the state's Eastern coast, the storm will not make landfall until late Thursday night or early Friday morning.

Governor Rick Scott told residents this morning: "we cannot rule out the possibility of a direct hit".

He is urging residents to have enough food, water and medication on hand to last 72 hours. Mr Scott also advised Floridians to fill their cars with petrol and charge their mobile phones so they can seek help if needed.

Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina will consider mass evacuations if it appears the storm will strike them head on.

Slow-moving category 4 storm

Matthew is not only a strong storm, but a slow-moving one. That could make it especially destructive, because it will linger over Haiti and possibly Cuba and the Southeastern US, allowing rainfall to accumulate into devastating totals. 

In Haiti, as much as 40 inches could fall in isolated, mountainous areas. More than 20 inches are expected in more populated areas, many of which flooded before the storm even made landfall. 

haiti_hurricane1-large_transpivx42josuakz0be9ijungh28zinhzwg9svuzlxrn1uA fisherman looks at the sea in Caira beach, in the commune of Leogane, to the southwest from Port-au-Prince CREDIT: HECTOR METAMAL/AFP


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