One of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent history roared over the open Caribbean Sea on Saturday on a course that threatened Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba.
Hurricane Matthew briefly reached the top hurricane classification, Category 5, and was the strongest Atlantic storm since Felix in 2007.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Matthew’s winds had slipped slightly from a peak of 160 mph to a still potentially devastating 150 mph, a Category 4 storm. It was expected to near eastern Jamaica and southwestern Haiti on Monday.
The center issued a hurricane warning for Jamaica and parts of Haiti, where it said life-threatening rainfall was expected.
The forecast track would also carry Matthew across Cuba and into the Bahamas, with an outside chance of a brush with Florida, though that would be several days away.
“It’s too early to rule out what impacts, if any, would occur in the United States and Florida,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman at the National Hurricane Center.
As Matthew skimmed past the northern tip of South America there were reports of at least one death — the second attributed to the storm.
Authorities in the area breathed a sigh of relief as the storm, which triggered heavy flooding in towns along the La Guajira peninsula of Colombia, caused minimal damage overall. Some officials were even grateful for the rain after a multiyear drought in the poverty-stricken area.
“Families that evacuated are returning to their homes,” said La Guajira Gov. Jorge Velez. “The dikes and wells filled up, the earth is moist, and this benefits agriculture in an area where it hasn’t rained for five years, benefiting the community.”
Authorities said that at least 27 houses were damaged and two roads were washed out. One person, a 67-year-old indigenous man, was carried away to his death by a flash flood in an area where it hadn’t rained for four years.
All across Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, authorities set up emergency shelters, closed access to beaches and urged residents living near the ocean to move inland in preparation for storm surges that they said would peak sometime Saturday.
There was concern that heavy rain across much of the country this weekend could dampen turnout for a nationwide referendum Sunday on a historic peace accord between the government and leftist rebels.
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.
Residents of the capital, Kingston, crowded supermarkets to buy bottled water, canned food and batteries, and there was already flooding in the coastal town of Port Royal, where officials were urging residents to seek refuge in government shelters once they opened up Sunday.
Many Jamaicans also began stocking up for the emergency.
At the Azan Super Center, a supermarket in Kingston, shoppers were scooping up flashlights and gas lamps along with food. The kerosene was already sold out.
“It has been chaos from the morning,” owner Melain Azan said.
Shopper Nardia Powell said she was stocking up because she learned a hard lesson when she was unprepared for Hurricane Ivan in 2004, as were many others. “So, I just want to be on the safe side, right?” she said.
Feltgen said storm-force winds and rain would arrive well before the center 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 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.
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. 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.
Forecasters said rainfall totals could reach 10 to 15 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 25 inches in Jamaica and southwestern Haiti.
The U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is also potentially in the path of the storm. A mandatory evacuation of nonessential personnel, including about 700 family members of military personnel, was underway and everyone staying 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 center.
Matthew caused at least one death when it entered the Caribbean on Wednesday. Officials in St. Vincent reported a 16-year-old boy was crushed by a boulder as he tried to clear a blocked drain.
8:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.
4:15 p.m.: This article was updated with details from Colombia.
12:55 p.m.: This article was updated with the hurricane’s new position and additional information.
8:45 a.m.: This article was updated with additional information.
This article was originally published at 4:05 a.m.