Hurricane Matthew threatens Haiti, Jamaica

Hurricane Matthew, a potentially devastating Category 4 storm, swirled across the Caribbean toward Haiti and Jamaica, where residents frantically stocked up on emergency supplies and authorities urged people to evacuate threatened areas.

U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is also potentially in the path of the storm

Workers board up a storefront window in Kingston on Saturday. (Collin Reid/Associated Press)

Hurricane Matthew, a potentially devastating Category 4 storm, swirled across the Caribbean toward Haiti and Jamaica, where residents frantically stocked up on emergency supplies and authorities urged people to evacuate threatened areas.

Matthew is one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent history and briefly reached the top classification, Category 5, before weakening slightly to a high-end Category 4 storm with winds of 240 km/h. It is the strongest hurricane here since Felix in 2007.

While previous forecasts had Matthew passing near or over the eastern tip of Jamaica, the latest projection has it shifting eastward and possibly striking the southwestern tip of Haiti on Monday. A hurricane warning has been issued for the impoverished country which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

Deforestation has greatly increased the potential for devastating floods and landslides on Haiti, and combined with the ramshackle structure of many homes and building, this means that Matthew could deal a vicious blow to the country.

Stocking up in Jamaica

In Jamaica, high surf began pounding the coast and flooding temporarily closed the road linking the capital to its airport. Carl Ferguson, head of the marine police, said people were starting to heed calls to relocate from small islands and areas near rural waterways.

Many also began stocking up for the emergency.

"I left work to pick up a few items, candles, tin stuff, bread," 41-year-old Angella Wage said at a crowded store in the Half Way Tree area of the capital, Kingston. "We can never be too careful."

Feltgen said storm force winds and rain will arrive well before the centre of the storm. Jamaicans "basically have daylight today, they have tonight and they have daylight tomorrow to take care of what needs to be done," he said.

Jamaicans flock to the supermarkets to take care of last-minute shopping ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Matthew in Kingston, Jamaica. (Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters)

Jamaicans are accustomed to intense storms, but Hurricane Matthew looked particularly threatening. At its peak, it was more powerful than Hurricane Gilbert, which made landfall on the island in September 1988 and was the most destructive storm in the country's modern history.

The U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is also potentially in the path of the storm. A mandatory evacuation of non-essential personnel, including family members of military personnel was underway and everyone remaining behind was being told to take shelter, said Julie Ann Ripley, a spokeswoman. There are about 5,500 people living on the base, including 61 men held at the detention centre.

'Highly threatened' Haiti

Forecasters said rainfall totals could reach 250 to 380 millimetres, with isolated maximum amounts of 630 millimetres in Jamaica and southwestern Haiti.

In Haiti, civil protection officials broadcast warnings of a coming storm surge and big waves, saying the country would be "highly threatened" from the approaching system over the next 72 hours. They urged families to prepare emergency food and water kits.

Emergency management authorities banned boating starting Saturday, particularly along the impoverished country's southern coastline, but numerous fishing skiffs could still be seen off the south coast.

Hurricane Matthew is seen in an image captured by NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite on Thursday. (NOAA/NASA/Reuters)

As of Saturday night, the storm was centred about 550 kilometres south-southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was travelling north-northwest at 11 km/h.

Earlier, Matthew skimmed past the northern tip of South America where there were reports of at least two deaths.