Hurricane Matthew causes life-threatening rain, batters Haiti

Residents of Haiti’s southwestern peninsula are bracing themselves for a long night of dangerous rain and catastrophic storm surges, as the strongest Caribbean storm in nine years began bearing down on the country.

Hurricane Matthew, a violent Category 4 storm packing 230k/h winds, was due to pound the western tip of Haiti early on Tuesday, according to the United States National Hurricane Centre.

“Life-threatening rain, wind and storm surges” had begun to spread over parts of the country as Matthew approached, the centre said in a 09:00 GMT advisory on Tuesday.

Haitians living in vulnerable coastal shacks frantically sought shelter as the outer bands of the cyclone had already reached the country’s southwestern areas late on Monday.

Dozens of houses were flooded in the town of Les Anglais when the ocean rose, according to the local mayor, while strong winds caused power outages in Les Cayes, on the southern coast.

“We have gusts of wind hitting the whole area and the people have fled to a shelter,” Les Anglais mayor Jean-Claude Despierre told Reuters news agency.

In Tiburon, another town nearby, authorities said people who had been reluctant to leave their homes also fled when the sea rose.

“Everyone is trying to find a safe place to protect themselves, the situation is very difficult,” mayor Remiza Denize said, describing large waves hitting the town.

The storm is forecast to spread hurricane force winds and up to three feet of rain across denuded hills prone to flash floods and mudslides, threatening villages as well as shanty towns in the capital Port-au-Prince.

“This is the most vulnerable suburb in the area. Here people are going about organising things, we know that the hurricane is coming,” Afou, a volunteer at a children’s home in the Cite Soleil slum in the capital, told Reuters.

“If things are bad then we will come together,” said Afou, who only gave his first name.

The Mayor of Cite Soleil, Frederic Hislain, said 150,000 people whose homes were threatened needed to be bused to safer places, but accepted that many people would not want to leave. Poor Haitians are often reluctant to leave home in the face of storms, fearing their belongings will be stolen.

The cyclone comes at a bad time for Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas and where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Tens of thousands of people in the country still live in tents after a 2010 earthquake that killed more than  200,000 people.