x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Hurricane lashes Haiti, threatening renewed disaster

Hurricane threatens renewed disaster as leaders of quake-hit nation call for mass evacuations.

CESSELESSE // Hurricane Tomas lashed Haiti with heavy rains and wind on Friday and threatened renewed disaster as leaders of the quake-hit nation called for mass evacuations from tent cities.

But many clung to their makeshift homes, even as the intensifying storm risked wiping out thousands of flimsy canvas tents and landing a near-direct hit on the western parts of the Caribbean country currently suffering from a deadly cholera epidemic.

"My sisters and brothers, leave the zones that are at risk, I beg of you," Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive urged in a television address.

"There will be rain and wind throughout the country. Don't be stubborn. Leave if you are in a fragile shelter."

On the forecast track, Tomas's center will pass near western Haiti and near or over eastern Cuba on Friday, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

"Some additional strengthening is possible (on Friday), followed by a weakening trend beginning on Saturday," the NHC said.

Haiti and parts of the neighboring Dominican Republic could see 12.5 to 25 centimetres of rain, with 38 centimetres in isolated spots, and that rains "could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides over mountainous terrain," the NHC warned.

Haitian authorities and non-governmental groups were rushing to get people to safety and secure vital stocks of medicines and goods before the arrival of the storm, which draped itself over the northern Caribbean, drenching much of Jamaica and eastern Cuba, where authorities issued a hurricane warning.

Tomas threatened further havoc in impoverished Haiti just as it battles a growing cholera epidemic that has killed 442 people.

"Although the cholera outbreak has largely been contained to regions north of Port-au-Prince... Tomas could set back our efforts to contain the outbreak in the camps, as heavy rains cause pooling water that can increase spread of the disease," the American Red Cross said.

Ahead of the storm's arrival, one person was reported killed trying to cross a swollen river in a vehicle, Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-aime said.

Hurricane Tomas killed 14 people in Saint Lucia, then weakened to a tropical depression before gaining a second life, and was now set to sweep past Haiti early Friday.

Tomas was bearing maximum sustained winds of 135 kilometres per hour.

At 1200 GMT the category one hurricane was centred 255 kilometres west of Port-au-Prince and was churning to the north-east at 16 kilometres per hour.

The government said it had taken steps to accommodate as many as 100,000 people in schools, churches and hospitals, said civil defense official Nadia Lochard.

But 1.3 million people were left homeless by January's quake, and fears over their fate were rising.

Hurricane warnings were also posted for parts of the Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos islands, which were staring at the potential of a direct hit later Friday.

Heavy wind and rain was thrashing the Cuban province of Guantanamo, site of the US naval base and its controversial prison housing terror suspects.

A Cuban airliner which flew out of the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on Thursday ahead of the approaching storm crashed halfway to Havana, killing all 68 people aboard.

Rain had begun to douse eastern Cuba when the plane took off, and another state-run airline had cancelled all flights in and out of Santiago de Cuba on Thursday until the storm passes. Authorities were investigating the cause of the crash.

In Haiti, refugees were being urged to seek shelter in schools and hospitals, but many fear that if they leave the overcrowded, putrid camps they will lose the only home they have as well as their few precious possessions.

"I want to stay here. I am young, I can fight against the rains. I don't want to abandon the space where I live," said Jean Wilford, in his 20s, as the first rains began to fall late Thursday.

A cigarette in her hand, Natacha Jean was also refusing to leave the Corail-Cesselesse camp, one of the largest in the Port-au-Prince region.

"We're not leaving. No one can make us. We have been here for eight months, and we won't abandon our tent," she said. "Where would we go?"

The hurricane marks yet another potential disaster for Haiti, where at least 250,000 people were killed by January's devastating earthquake.

Much of Haiti's population of just under 10 million people live in precarious conditions, vulnerable to natural disasters.

Mountainsides have been stripped of trees to be used as fuel, increasing the risk of landslides in wet weather.