PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Rescue workers in Haiti struggled to reach cutoff towns and learn the full extent of the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew as the storm began battering the Bahamas Wednesday and triggered evacuations along the U.S. East Coast.
At least 11 deaths had been blamed on the powerful storm during its weeklong march across the Caribbean, five of them in Haiti. But with a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the western tip of Haiti was isolated and there was no word on dead and injured.
Forecasters said the high winds, pounding rains and storm surge were already beginning to have an impact in the southern Bahamas as the storm, with top sustained winds of 125 mph.
A day earlier, Matthew swept across a remote area of Haiti with 145 mph winds, and government leaders said they weren’t close to fully gauging the impact in the vulnerable, flood-prone country where less powerful storms have killed thousands living in flimsy shacks.
“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.
The hurricane also rolled across the sparsely populated tip of Cuba overnight, destroying dozens of homes in Cuba’s easternmost city, Baracoa, and leaving hundreds of others damaged.
There were no immediate reports of deaths or large-scale devastation, though the waves had picked up a large shipping container and dropped it three blocks inland from the shore.
By Wednesday morning Matthew was passing east of the Bahamian island of Inagua, moving over open water on a forecast path expected to take it very near the Bahamas capital of Nassau and then Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening.
At 8 a.m. EDT Matthew’s eye was about 45 miles east-northeast of Cabo Lucrecia, Cuba. Matthew was heading north at 10 mph.
Matthew will likely pose a threat to Florida by late Thursday and other areas of the East Coast afterward.
Florida cancelled school classes along its Atlantic coastline and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley also announced plans starting Wednesday afternoon to evacuate a quarter million people, not counting tourists, from its vulnerable coastline.
The hurricane center said winds had slightly decreased overnight as Matthew dropped from a Category 4 to a Category 3 storm early Wednesday. But forecasters warned Matthew could re-strengthen slightly and said Matthew would remain a powerful and dangerous storm over coming days.
Along the U.S. East Coast, people raced to supermarkets, gas stations and hardware stores, buying up groceries, water, plywood, tarps, batteries and propane.
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. The White House said relief supplies were being moved to emergency staging areas in the Southeast.
In Haiti, where international aid efforts were stymied Tuesday because of the lack of access to the hardest-hit areas, muddy rivers and tributaries continued to rise as water flowed down hillsides and mountains, making more flash floods and mudslides possible even Matthew tracked away from the country.
Matthew was at one point a Category 5 storm, making it the most powerful hurricane in the region in nearly a decade.
Mourad Wahba, U.N. secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Haiti, said at least 10,000 people were in shelters and hospitals were overflowing and running short of water. Wahba’s statement called the hurricane’s destruction the “largest humanitarian event” in Haiti since the devastating earthquake of January 2010.
Surging waters ripped away a bridge in the flooded town of Petit Goave, preventing any road travel to the hard-hit southwest. Local radio reported water shoulder-high in parts of the southern city of Les Cayes.
Milriste Nelson, a 65-year-old farmer in the town of Leogane, said neighbors fled when the wind tore away the corrugated metal roof on 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. “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.
Rainfall totals had been predicted to reach 15 to 25 inches in Haiti, with up to 40 inches in isolated places.