Hurricane Matthew is roaring towards the southern Bahamas after leaving widespread damage and human suffering in Haiti’s rural south-western peninsula where the hardest-hit area was cut off by flooding.
At least 11 people died during the storm’s week-long march across the Caribbean, five of them in Haiti.
With a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the western tip of Haiti is isolated and there is no word on numbers of dead and injured.
Hours after Matthew swept over the remote area with 145mph winds, government leaders said they could not fully gauge the impact in the vulnerable, flood-prone country where less powerful storms have killed thousands.
“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.
After making landfall on Tuesday night near Cuba’s sparsely populated eastern tip with no immediate reports of major damage, the centre of the slightly weakened but still powerful storm moved back over open water.
Matthew had top sustained winds of 125mph and was heading north at 8mph as it started to take aim at the Bahamas. Forecasters reported tropical storm conditions were already spreading over the south-eastern Bahamas, with hurricane conditions expected in coming hours.
Bahamas prime minister Perry Christie 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.
The US National Hurricane Centre in Miami said winds had slightly decreased overnight as Matthew dropped from a Category 4 to a still powerful Category 3 storm, but forecasters warned such fluctuations in intensity were expected and Matthew remained a potent and dangerous storm.
There is growing concern on the US East Coast, which is expected to come under threat after the Bahamas. People raced to supermarkets, fuel stations and hardware stores, buying up groceries, water, plywood, tarpaulins, batteries and propane.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said she was issuing an evacuation order so a million people would have time to leave the coast. The Red Cross put out a call for volunteers.
Florida governor 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 south east.
In Haiti, muddy rivers and tributaries continued to rise as water flowed down hillsides and mountains, making more flash floods and mudslides possible even as Matthew moves away.
Matthew was at one point a Category 5 storm, making it the most powerful hurricane in the region for nearly a decade. It blew ashore around dawn in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and a place where many people live in shacks of wood or concrete blocks.
Mourad Wahba, the UN 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. His 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 south west. Local radio reported water shoulder high in parts of the southern city of Les Cayes.