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Weather & Natural Disasters

Hurricane Matthew Threatens Bahamas After Slamming Haiti, Cuba

Emma Margolin, Alex Johnson, Gabe Gutierrez and Elisha Fieldstadt
Hurricane Matthew targets the Bahamas

Deadly Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Atlantic tropical storm in almost a decade, was pushing toward the Bahamas Wednesday, regaining some of the strength it had lost after swiping Cuba and leaving a trail of destruction in Haiti.

The storm pummeled towns, farmland and resorts and wiped out power to tens of thousands of people. Civil defense officials in Haiti said many homes had been destroyed or damaged in the south.

The forecast had worsened overnight for Florida, where heavy rain, coastal flooding, storm surges and beach erosion could begin as as early as Thursday afternoon before possibly moving up the Southeast coast into North Carolina later in the week.

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But models showed a dramatic improvement for the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, with the latest projections showing the tracking right-toward the ocean once it reaches northeast Florida.

The forecast had worsened overnight for Florida, where heavy rain, coastal flooding, storm surges and beach erosion could begin as as early as Thursday afternoon before possibly moving up the Southeast coast into North Carolina later in the week.

"How close it gets to the coastline is still somewhat uncertain. The southeast coast is very much in play," said Kevin Roth, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel. "But it looks like once we get past the weekend, the threat to the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast is over."

Matthew brushed past the eastern tip of Cuba at about 8 p.m. ET, almost 53 years to the day after Hurricane Flora killed 2,000 Cubans, the National Hurricane Center said. While the storm knocked down dozens of homes in Baracoa-- a city near the eastern tip of Cuba, preliminary reports indicated that the soaking rains and driving winds caused relatively little damage.

Before the storm hit, many residents who lived close to the water went further inland. Cuban officials said approximately 35,000 residents were either moved to higher ground with family or placed in shelters run by the state.

Matthew was classified as a Category 3 hurricane Wednesday morning as it moved back out over the ocean toward the Bahamas at about 10 mph, with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph. But forecasters anticipate the storm to pick up strength in the coming days.

"The expectation is it will grow back into a Category 4 hurricane during the overnight hours," Roth said.

Matthew is set to move through the central Bahamas on Wednesday afternoon, bringing 8 to 12 inches of rain with to 15 inches in isolated areas.

As the slow-moving storm lingered over Haiti — the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere — officials feared that the country would have to contend with yet another devastating humanitarian disaster.

A key bridge collapsed in the town of Petit-Goâve on the highway that links Haiti's hardest-hit southwestern peninsula region to the capital, Port-au-Prince. Several people were reportedly "swept away."

So far, Haiti's civil protection agency has reported just two deaths, one of them a fisherman who drowned in rough water churned up by the storm.

Six other deaths have also been blamed on Matthew: One man died in Colombia, four people were killed in the Dominican Republic and a teenager was killed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines as the storm moved through the Caribbean.

But officials fear the death toll could rise, especially in and around the southern town of Les Cayes, which absorbed the first blow from Matthew and where hundreds were hunkering down in homes without electricity and roofs.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said in a press call on Wednesday that it would be giving $1.5 million in assistance to the Caribbean. Of that, $1 million would be food aid and the rest of the $500,00 would be for non-food items including shelter, blankets, and water purification equipment.

USAID Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance R. David Harden, said his team of about two dozen disaster experts are currently making an initial assessment in Haiti, noting communications are down in most of the affected areas. "Once the storm is fully passed, we'll be able to do a better assessment on mud slides, road conditions and the state of vulnerable people," said Harden. He added USAID was prepared to deploy more relief supplies if necessary.

Haiti Special Coordinator and Western Hemisphere Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Kenneth Merten said "flooding and mudslides are still potential dangers in Haiti."

Meanwhile, in the U.S., empty shelves and long gas-station lines were reported across the Southeast early Wednesday as the storm crept closer toward coastal communities.

A state of emergency was declared in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. South Carolina was preparing to evacuate almost a quarter of its population, while other states brought in the National Guard.