The death toll from Hurricane Matthew rose dramatically as officials in Haiti revealed at least 108 people had lost their lives.
It came as the storm gained new fury as it hammered the central Bahamas, and forecasters feared it would strengthen further as it approaches Florida’s heavily-populated Atlantic coast.
The deaths in Haiti raise the hurricane’s overall toll across the Caribbean to 114.
Matthew mashed concrete walls and tore away rooftops, forcing thousands of Haitians to flee for their lives.
In the southwest seaport of Les Cayes, many were searching for clean water yesterday as they lugged mattresses and other scant belongings they were able to salvage.
“Nothing is going well,” said Jardine Laguerre, a teacher. “The water took what little money we had. We are hungry.”
Authorities and aid workers were just beginning to get a clear picture of what they fear is the country’s biggest disaster in years.
Before hitting Haiti, the storm was blamed for four deaths in the Dominican Republic, one in Colombia and one in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. So far there were no reports of casualties from better-equipped Cuba or the Bahamas.
The US National Hurricane Centre in Miami meanwhile said Matthew was expected to regain status as an even more powerful category four storm. Top sustained winds ratcheted up from 115mph to 125mph on Wednesday night.
As the threat from the major hurricane increased along the US coast, the centre extended a hurricane warning area on a large stretch of Florida’s east coast up to the Altamaha Sound in Georgia. And it said a newly expanded hurricane watch area now reached from the Altamaha Sound to the South Santee River in South Carolina.
As Matthew, the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade, put the US in its sights, about two million people were encouraged to head inland.
But John Long, who lives in the Florida town of Cape Canaveral, was unconcerned and planned to stay in his motorhome about half-a-mile from the coast.
He said: “The hype is going to be worse than the actual storm. I feel I can do quite well.
“There’s always tremendous build-up and then it’s no stronger than an afternoon thunderstorm. I’m not anticipating that much damage.”
Florida governor Rick Scott had urged people to reconsider.
“This is a dangerous storm,” he said. “The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida.”
Similar warnings have been issued in Georgia and the Carolinas, where the storm is expected to arrive by the weekend. The last category three storm or higher to hit the United States was Wilma in October 2005. It made landfall with 120mph winds in south-west Florida, killing five people as it slashed across the state.
Florida officials have urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast.
Meanwhile, a motorist shot during an altercation with South Carolina police over a Hurricane Matthew evacuation route has died. Berkeley County Chief Deputy Coroner George Oliver said 35-year-old Lucas M Felkel of Moncks Corner died shortly after 7pm on Wednesday.
Sheriff Duane Lewis said it happened about 5.30pm in Moncks Corner when a motorist came to a checkpoint, knocked down some traffic cones and sped off.
The sheriff said when deputies finally caught up with the driver a few miles away he pointed a gun at deputies and started shooting.
The deputies shot back, wounding the man who was taken to the hospital, where he later died.
No deputies were wounded.