Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in almost a decade, hit Cuba and Haiti with 140 mile-per-hour (230 kph) winds on Tuesday, pummeling towns, farmland and resorts, and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to take cover.
Dubbed by the UN the worst humanitarian crisis to hit Haiti since a devastating 2010 earthquake, the Category Four hurricane unleashed torrential rain on the island of Hispaniola that Haiti shares with Dominican Republic.
As it barrelled towards the United States, the eye of the storm had reached the coast of eastern Cuba by Tuesday evening, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
At least four people were killed in the Dominican Republic by collapsing walls and mudslides, as well as two in Haiti, where communications in the worst-hit areas were down, making it hard for authorities to assess the scale of the damage.
“Haiti is facing the largest humanitarian event witnessed since the earthquake six years ago,” said Mourad Wahba, the UN secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Haiti.
Over 2,00,000 people were killed in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, in the January 2010 earthquake.
Early reports suggested that Cuba had not been hit as hard as Haiti, where the situation was described as “catastrophic” in the port town of Les Cayes.
In the Cuban city of Guantanamo, streets emptied as people moved to shelters or inside their homes.
Matthew is likely to remain a major hurricane through at least Thursday night as it sweeps through the Bahamas towards Florida and the Atlantic coast of the southern United States, the NHC said. The governor of South Carolina ordered the evacuation of more than 1 million people from Wednesday afternoon.
With communications out across most of Haiti and a key bridge impassable because of a swollen river, there was no immediate word on the full extent of potential casualties and damage from the storm in the poorest country in the Americas.
But Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters in Washington the US Navy was considering sending an aircraft carrier and other ships to the region to aid relief efforts.
The United States has already offered Haiti the use of some helicopters, said Haitian interior minister Francois Anick Joseph, who added that damage to housing and crops in the country was apparently extensive.
Twice destroyed by hurricanes in the 18th century, Les Cayes was hit hard by Matthew.
“The situation in Les Cayes is catastrophic, the city is flooded, you have trees lying in different places and you can barely move around, the wind has damaged many houses,” said Deputy Mayor Marie Claudette Regis Delerme, who fled a house in the town of about 70,000 when the wind ripped the roof off.
One man died as the storm crashed through his home in the nearby beach town of Port Salut, Haiti’s civil protection service said. He had been too sick to leave for a shelter, officials said. The body of a second man who went missing at sea was also recovered, the government said. Another fisherman was killed in heavy seas over the weekend as the storm approached.