Hurricane Matthew, one of the most powerful Caribbean storms in 50 years, spun its way over the Bahamas and towards Florida's east coast on Wednesday after swiping southwestern Haiti and the eastern tip of Cuba with violent winds and torrential rains.
United Nations officials are calling it the worst humanitarian crisis to hit impoverished Haiti since a devastating 2010 earthquake.
In Florida, beachfront residents were urged to evacuate the eastern coast and Governor Rick Scott warned of a catastrophe if Matthew made a direct hit on Thursday.
"If Matthew directly impacts Florida, the destruction could be catastrophic and you need to be prepared," Scott said. Many Floridians shuttered or boarded up their windows and headed to stores to stock up on essential hurricane supplies such as water and batteries
Tropical storm or hurricane conditions could also affect parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina later this week. Matthew was downgraded to a Category Three hurricane on Wednesday with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. However, Forecasters said it was expected to restrengthen over warm waters in the Bahamas.
At 11pm EDT it was 325 miles southeast of West Palm Beach. It appeared likely to miss the densely populated Miami area, and could make landfall near the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
If Matthew does strike Florida "it could bring severe hurricane conditions to a heavily populated coastal region that’s had precious little experience with such a storm," said Bob Henson a meteorologist with the Weather Undergeround blog.
Despite the severe damage to parts of Haiti and Cuba, metereologists say it could have been much worse as Matthew has so far taken a course mostly over sea. "Matthew’s thread-the-needle track included only brief spells over the westernmost tip of Haiti and extreme eastern Cuba," said Henson. "This land-avoiding track allowed the hurricane to move into The Bahamas with its structure largely intact, but it also greatly limited the extent of strong winds over [Cuba and Haiti]," he added.
Matthew caused severe flooding and killed 26 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Reuters reported. Authorities said five people in Haiti were crushed by trees and six were swept away by swollen rivers.
"Haiti is facing the largest humanitarian event witnessed since the earthquake six years ago," said Mourad Wahba, the U.N. secretary-general's deputy special representative for Haiti.
As the recovery effort got underway the U.S. government said it was sending a team of 100 military personnel and nine helicopters to Haiti to support the relief efforts.
The storm sliced through western Haiti on Tuesday destroying houses, flattening palm trees and flooding farmland.
Reuters reported that In the town of Jeremie, people were cooking and sleeping outside because most houses lost their roofs or were severely damaged.
Similar scenes were reported across the coastal towns of the south. More than 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the coastal city of Les Cayes , officials said, after roads were blocked by debris and several bridges collapsed.
“City is devastated, torn up, most places can only get to by foot. but we are ok, no power in town,” Morgan Wienberg, 24, the founder of a safe house for orphans and homeless children in the city of Les Cayes, wrote on Facebook.
Damage to homes and vegetation was also severe in Ile-a-Vache, an island of 10,000 residents which sits five miles off the coast from Les Cayes. The mayor appealed for food and water after the island was cut off for several days from the mainland due to the severe weather. The island lacks fresh water or electricity and depends on generators and solar panels for power.
In Cuba, Matthew devastated the picturesque colonial town of Baracoa, in the province of Guantanamo. Many homes were damaged and the streets littered with chunks of cement and collapsed roofs.