Rebekah Kebede reports for Reuters from Kingston.
Hurricane Matthew weakened slightly on Saturday as it headed toward Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, but with winds reaching 145 miles per hour (230 kph), locals braced for the arrival of a storm forecasters warned was powerful enough to wreck homes.
Matthew, the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean since Felix in 2007, was forecast to make landfall as a major storm on Monday on Jamaica’s southern coast, home to the country’s capital, Kingston, and its only oil refinery. It could also affect tourist destinations such as Montego Bay in the north.
With Matthew about 390 miles (625 km) southeast of Kingston, the U.S. National Hurricane Center ranked it at Category 4 of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity. Earlier it had been ranked at the top Category 5.
The Jamaican capital got a preview of what might be in store when the road to the airport temporarily flooded due to unusually high tides. Rain fell and authorities told fishermen to moor in safe harbor until the storm had passed.
“We’re boarding up the windows and we’re moving things in vulnerable areas to safer areas,” said Mary Lowe, owner of Wilks Bay resort near Port Antonio on the northeast coast.
Disaster coordinators, police and troops are on high alert and shelters are being opened across the island, said Robert Morgan, director of communications at the prime minister’s office, which hosted an emergency meeting to plan for the storm on Friday.
Forecasters issued a hurricane watch for portions of Haiti, as Matthew shifted course toward its southern coast, which is prone to devastating flooding. Officials said preparation efforts were focused in the south.
Cuba declared the first stage of an emergency in five eastern provinces. In its second city, Santiago de Cuba, the ruling Communist Party opened shelters and organized volunteer teams to clean storm drains and gather food stocks.
“We have to work intensely,” said Lazaro Exposito Canto of the party central committee, saying in the Granma newspaper that volunteers would go from house to house to warn of the storm.
Cuba has a solid track record of preparing for storms. The last big one to hit was Sandy in 2012, which though weaker than Matthew, caused major damage to property and killed 11 people.
Matthew’s center will move across the central Caribbean Sea on Saturday and towards Jamaica and Haiti late on Sunday, U.S. forecasters said. It is due to reach Cuba early on Tuesday.
ISLANDERS STOCK UP
Jamaica was hard hit by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Matthew could be the most powerful storm to cross the island since records began, meteorologist Eric Holthaus said on Twitter.
Many Kingstonians stocked up on water and food on Friday.
Tenaj Lewis, 41, a doctor who was stocking up with groceries in Kingston, said Jamaica was much better-prepared for hurricanes than when Gilbert struck.
“The country literally shut down for months,” she said.
Since then, hurricanes have brought a few days of power outages but have not been nearly as destructive and many Jamaicans were unflustered.
Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) warned that flights to Montego Bay might be disrupted and said customers could reschedule.