Tomas drops to a depression but remains threat for Jamaica, Haiti

Two Caribbean countries still reeling from natural disasters braced for another one from Tomas, which has already cut a deadly swath through the region but weakened to a depression in the early morning hours Wednesday.

Jamaica, where flash flooding from Tropical Storm Nicole a month ago swept more than a dozen people to their deaths and erased roads and crops, issued a hurricane watch as Tomas, downgraded to a depression, was expected to begin buffeting the island as early as Thursday.

The Haitian government issued a red alert, warning residents in low-lying areas and tent cities erected after the January earthquake killed more than 300,000 to prepare to evacuate if Tomas doesn’t turn away. On its current track, it could hit the southwestern coast by Friday.

“Evacuations will have to wait on what the storm does but we are telling people to get themselves ready,” said Leonard Doyle, a spokesman with the International Organization for Migration. “If things continue the way they are going, it’s going to be a very, very precarious situation.”

At 5 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said Tomas’ sustained winds had dropped to 35 mph and the system was poorly defined. But forecasters still expected it to regain strength over the next few days and it predicted path also remained largely unchanged.

A low-pressure front was expected to sharply turn the storm, which was moving west more than 350 miles south of Jamaica and Haiti, back to the northeast on a track that could sweep uncomfortably close to Jamaica and then strike Haiti.

John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade, called Tomas a “tricky storm” and said there was still considerable uncertainity about its precise path and potential power.

But even if Tomas remains weak, the current track would leave Haiti on the strong, wet side of a system still expected to dump a lot of rain — four to eight inches or more.

“That’s certainly unchanged,” he said. “That’s one of the more certain things about this storm.”

In Jamaica, with some areas still saturated from Nicole, there are major flooding concerns. In Haiti, where many hillsides are denuded and prone to mud slides and flooding, a tropical deluge could be particularly dangerous and deadly.

Flooding from Hurricanes Hanna and Ike in 2008 killed more than 800 people and the four consecutive named storms that hit Haiti that year left $1 billion in damage. A deluge also could hamper the battle to contain an outbreak of cholera, caused by drinking contaminated water, that already has killed more than 300 people.

Haitian disaster and international experts scrambled Tuesday to find shelters for the most vulnerable. Among the possibilities so far: a newly built but not yet occupied prison and a large church in the city of Croix-des-Bouquets.

Doyle, the International Organization for Migration spokesman, said more than the masses living in camps, estimated at one-million plus, are in danger if the storm batters Port-au-Prince. Low-lying shanty communities, built on trash, also easily flood.

“There are not very many places to go,” he said. “We know Haitians are very well organized. They have incredible networks. We know they are capable of doing things by themselves. But they will need help.”

Tomas has already been blamed for up to a dozen deaths in the eastern Caribbean, where it raked Barbados before gaining strength to hit St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines as a Category 1 hurricane.

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