Major quake shakes Miami and the Caribbean, tsunami threat passes

(Reuters) – A powerful magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck the western Caribbean on Tuesday, triggering evacuations as buildings shook across the Cayman Islands, in Jamaica, and in downtown Miami, but with no initial reports of significant damage.

The epicenter of the quake was in the sea between Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba, at a shallow depth of 6.2 miles (10 km).

The International Tsunami Information Center said an earlier threat of a tsunami wave had largely passed. Minor sea level fluctuations up to 1 feet (30 cm) were still possible, it said.

In Miami, Florida, several buildings downtown had groups of people standing outside who said they had been evacuated.

The Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue department said it responded to multiple calls about high rise buildings swaying.

“As of now, there are no injuries or structural damages. Residents/visitors are advised to stay calm,” the department said on Twitter.

Officials across the region had no initial reports of major damage, despite the size of the quake.

Angie Watler, a spokeswoman for police on Cayman Brac, the island nearest the epicenter of the quake, said members of the public had reported some damage to buildings and to a swimming pool at the Carib Sands resort on the south of the island.

Videos on social media, apparently from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, showed water sloshing out of pools during the quake.

Watler said there were no reports so far of injuries but that authorities were still making checks on the area.

A Cayman Islands official said there had been some reports of sinkholes following the quake.

The quake was also felt in several provinces across Cuba, the government said. It was not strongly felt in the capital of Havana, according to a Reuters witness.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting by Sandra Maler in Washington and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Rosalba O’Brien)

Hurricane Matthew hammers Haiti and Cuba, bears down on U.S.

Damage from Hurricane Matthew

By Makini Brice and Sarah Marsh

LES CAYES, Haiti/GUANTANAMO, Cuba (Reuters) – Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in almost a decade, hit Cuba and Haiti with winds of well over 100 miles-per-hour on Tuesday, pummeling towns, farmland and resorts and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to take cover.

Dubbed by the U.N. the worst humanitarian crisis to hit Haiti since a devastating 2010 earthquake, the Category Four hurricane unleashed torrential rain on the island of Hispaniola that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.

As it barreled towards the United States, the eye of the storm had moved off the northeastern coast of Cuba by Tuesday night, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

At least four people were killed in the Dominican Republic by collapsing walls and mudslides, as well as two in Haiti, where communications in the worst-hit areas were down, making it hard for authorities to assess the scale of the damage.

“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.

Over 200,000 people were killed in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, by the January 2010 earthquake.

Matthew was blowing sustained winds of 140 mph (230 kph) or more for much of Tuesday, though as night fell, the windspeed eased to about 130 mph, the NHC said.

Early reports suggested that Cuba had not been hit as hard as Haiti, where the situation was described as “catastrophic” in the port town of Les Cayes.

In the Cuban city of Guantanamo, streets emptied as people moved to shelters or inside their homes.

Matthew is likely to remain a powerful hurricane through at least Thursday night as it sweeps through the Bahamas towards Florida and the Atlantic coast of the southern United States, the NHC said. The storm is expected to be very near the east cost of Florida by Thursday evening, the center added.

The governor of South Carolina ordered the evacuation of more than 1 million people from Wednesday afternoon.

With communications out across most of Haiti and a key bridge impassable because of a swollen river, there was no immediate word on the full extent of potential casualties and damage from the storm in the poorest country in the Americas.

But Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters in Washington the U.S. Navy was considering sending an aircraft carrier and other ships to the region to aid relief efforts.

The United States has already offered Haiti the use of some helicopters, said Haitian Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph, who added that damage to housing and crops in the country was apparently extensive.

Twice destroyed by hurricanes in the 18th century, Les Cayes was hit hard by Matthew.

“The situation in Les Cayes is catastrophic, the city is flooded, you have trees lying in different places and you can barely move around. The wind has damaged many houses,” said Deputy Mayor Marie Claudette Regis Delerme, who fled a house in the town of about 70,000 when the wind ripped the roof off.

One man died as the storm crashed through his home in the nearby beach town of Port Salut, Haiti’s civil protection service said. He had been too sick to leave for a shelter, officials said. The body of a second man who went missing at sea was also recovered, the government said. Another fisherman was killed in heavy seas over the weekend as the storm approached.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

As much as 3 feet (1 meter) of rain was forecast to fall over hills in Haiti that are largely deforested and prone to flash floods and mudslides, threatening villages as well as shantytowns in the capital Port-au-Prince.

The hurricane has hit Haiti at a time when tens of thousands of people are still living in flimsy tents and makeshift dwellings because of the 2010 earthquake.

“Farms have been hit really hard. Things like plantains, beans, rice – they’re all gone,” said Hervil Cherubin, country director in Haiti for Heifer International, a nonprofit organization that is working with 30,000 farming families across Haiti. “Most of the people are going to have to start all over again. Whatever they accumulated the last few years has been all washed out.”

Matthew was churning around 20 miles (32 km) northwest of the eastern tip of Cuba at 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT). It was moving north at about 8 miles per hour (13 kph), the NHC said.

Cuba’s Communist government traditionally puts extensive efforts into saving lives and property in the face of storms, and authorities have spent days organizing teams of volunteers to move residents to safety and secure property.

The storm thrashed the tourist town of Baracoa in the province of Guantanamo, passing close to the disputed U.S. Naval base and military prison.

The U.S. Navy ordered the evacuation of 700 spouses and children along with 65 pets of service personnel as the storm approached. U.S. President Barack Obama had earlier canceled a trip to Florida scheduled for Wednesday because of the potential impact of the storm, the White House said.

A hurricane watch was in effect for Florida from an area just north of Miami Beach to the Volusia-Brevard county line, near Cape Canaveral, which the storm could reach on Thursday, the hurricane center said.

Tropical storm or hurricane conditions could affect parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina later this week, even if the center of Matthew remained offshore, the NHC said.

Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Florida on Monday, designating resources for evacuations and shelters and putting the National Guard on standby.

(Reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince and Makini Brice in Les Cayes; Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Cuba and Jorge Pineda in Dominican Republic; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Gardner, Sandra Maler and Nick Macfie)

Hurricane Matthew’s threat to Haiti grows, some resist shelters

Families aboard a plane to evacuate them

By Makini Brice and Joseph Guyler Delva

LES CAYES/PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Hurricane Matthew edged closer to Haiti on Monday, bringing 130- mile-per-hour (215 kph) winds and torrential rain that could wreak havoc in the Caribbean nation, although some 2,000 people in one coastal town refused to evacuate.

Matthew’s center is expected to near southwestern Haiti and Jamaica on Monday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Crawling towards Haiti’s Les Cayes, Jamaica and Cuba at five miles per hour (seven kph), the storm could be just as slow leaving, giving its winds and rain more time to cause damage.

“We are worried about the slow pace of Hurricane Matthew, which will expose Haiti to much more rain, and the country is particularly vulnerable to flooding,” said Ronald Semelfort, director of Haiti’s national meteorology center.

The storm comes at a bad time for Haiti. The poorest country in the Americas is set to hold a long-delayed election next Sunday.

A combination of weak government and precarious living conditions make the country particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. More than 200,000 people were killed when a magnitude 7 earthquake struck in 2010.

“Even in normal times, when we have rain we have flooding that sometimes kills people,” said Semelfort, comparing Matthew to 1963’s Hurricane Flora, which swept away entire villages and killed thousands in Haiti.

RESISTANCE

In Jamaica too, officials were scrambling to protect the vulnerable, as residents boarded up windows and flocked to supermarkets to stock up on food, water, flashlights and beer.

In Cuba, which Matthew is due to reach on Tuesday, evacuation operations were well underway, with people voluntarily moving their belongings into neighbors’ houses or heading to shelters. Some even found cliff-side caves they said were the safest places to ride out storms.

Matthew was about 245 miles (3955 km) south-southeast of Jamaica’s Kingston early on Monday and moving north toward Haiti. The hurricane center ranked it at Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.

In Haiti, some streets were already flooded in Les Cayes, a town of about 70,000 people that was previously ravaged by hurricanes in 1781 and 1788.

But Haitian officials said about 2,000 residents of the La Savane neighborhood of Les Cayes refused to heed government calls to move out of their seaside homes, even though they were just a few miles from where the center of the hurricane is forecast to make landfall.

As the wind died down at night, people remained outside in La Savane, hanging out on porches, playing checkers and dominoes outside, and listening to music.

“The police and local authorities and our evacuation teams have been instructed to do all they can to move those people,” Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph said.

“They have also been instructed to move them by force if necessary. We have an obligation to protect those peoples lives, even against their will.”

However, the chief of police for the southern region, Luc Pierre, said it was almost impossible to force such a large number of people to leave their homes.

“I would have to arrest all those people and take them to a safe place. This is very difficult,” he said, adding that the power had already gone off in the town.

Poor Haitians are at times reluctant to leave their homes in the face of impending storms, fearing their belongings will be stolen after they leave.

Only a few families had opted to move to a high school in La Savane, designated as a shelter for up to 600 people. It was without electricity and lit only by candlelight.

“There are babies crying here; there is nothing at all,” said Nadja, 32, who was pregnant with her fourth child.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh and Gabriel Stargardter; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Larry King)

Hurricane Matthew strengthens in the Caribbean

By Makini Brice

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Hurricane Matthew strengthened on Friday into the Caribbean’s first major hurricane in four years as it moved towards Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba with winds of up to 115 miles per hour (185 km/h) that could cause devastating damage, forecasters said.

Matthew was about 495 miles (800 km) southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) designated it as Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.

It is forecast to make landfall as a major storm on Monday on Jamaica’s palm-fringed southern coast, home to tourist resorts as well as the capital and Jamaica’s only oil refinery.

The last major hurricane in the region was Sandy, in 2012.

In Haiti, which has been hard hit by natural disasters in the past, officials said preparation efforts were focussed in the south of the country. Matthew is forecast to skim past the south coast on Monday.

“We will prepare with drinking water for the patients, with medication, with generators for electricity, available vehicles to go look for people at their homes,” said Yves Domercant, the head of the public hospital in Les Cayes in the south.

In Cuba, which has a strong track record of keeping its citizens out of harms way when storms strike, residents of the eastern coastal city of Santiago de Cuba said they were tracking the news closely, although skies were still blue.

“We don’t know yet exactly where it will go, so we’re still waiting to see,” said Marieta Gomez, owner of Hostal Marieta, who was following the storm closely on TV and radio. “We Cubans are well prepared.”

The storm killed one person in St. Vincent and the Grenadines earlier in the week.

(Reporting by Makini Brice, additional reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Vijaykumar Vedala in Bengaluru; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Grant McCool)

Jamaica In Severe Debt Crisis

Jamaica is planning its second debt swap in three years in an attempt to reduce the staggering debt which is crippling the government.

The country’s debt is currently 140% of the nation’s gross domestic product. The ratio is one of the highest debt to GDP ratios in the world. The debt swap is being done in an attempt to appease demands of the International Monetary Fund. Continue reading