Hurricane Matthew churned toward the Bahamas early Wednesday with a spreading mix of high winds, heavy rains and a dangerous storm surge, leaving widespread damage and human suffering behind in Haiti’s poor, rural southwestern peninsula.
At least 11 deaths had been blamed on the powerful storm during its weeklong march across the Caribbean, five of them in Haiti. But with a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the western tip of Haiti was isolated and there was no word on dead and injured.
Forecasters said the high winds, pounding rains and storm surge were already beginning to have an impact in the southern Bahamas as the powerful Category 3 hurricane left Haiti and eastern Cuba behind and marched toward the island chain over open waters Wednesday.
A day earlier, Matthew swept across a remote area of Haiti with 145 mph winds, and government leaders said they weren’t close to fully gauging the impact in the vulnerable, flood-prone country where less powerful storms have killed thousands.
“What we know is that many, many houses have been damaged. Some lost rooftops and they’ll have to be replaced while others were totally destroyed,” Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph said.
The hurricane also had made landfall Tuesday night near Cuba’s sparsely populated eastern tip with no immediate reports of major damage.
By Wednesday it was moving again over open waters on a forecast path expected to take it very near Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening.
At 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) Matthew’s eye was about 65 miles (110 kilometers) north-northwest of the tip of eastern Cuba. Matthew had top sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph) and was heading north at 10 mph (17 kph) as it was taking aim at the Bahamas.
Tropical storm conditions began spreading over the southeastern Bahamas early Wednesday, with hurricane conditions expected to follow later, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie voiced concern about the potential impact on the sprawling archipelago off Florida’s east coast.
“We’re worried because we do not control nature,” he said.
The hurricane center said winds had slightly decreased overnight as Matthew dropped from a Category 4 to a still powerful Category 3 storm early Wednesday. But forecasters warned such fluctuations in intensity were expected and that Matthew would remain a powerful and dangerous storm over coming days.
There was growing concern on the U.S. East Coast, which was expected to come under threat after Matthew made a two-day surge up the length of the Bahamas. People raced to supermarkets, gas stations and hardware stores, buying up groceries, water, plywood, tarps, batteries and propane.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged coastal residents to prepare for the possibility of a direct hit and line up three days’ worth of food, water and medicine. The White House said relief supplies were being moved to emergency staging areas in the Southeast.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she would issue an evacuation order Wednesday so 1 million people would have time to leave the coast. The Red Cross put out a call for volunteers there.
In Haiti, where international aid efforts were stymied Tuesday because of the lack of access to the hardest-hit areas, many residents of flooded areas seen by Associated Press reporters were wading through shin-high waters.
Muddy rivers and tributaries continued to rise as water flowed down hillsides and mountains, making more flash floods and mudslides possible even Matthew tracked away from the country.
Matthew was at one point a Category 5 storm, making it the most powerful hurricane in the region in nearly a decade. It blew ashore around dawn Tuesday in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and a place where many people live in shacks of wood or concrete blocks.
Mourad Wahba, U.N. secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Haiti, said at least 10,000 people were in shelters and hospitals were overflowing and running short of water. Wahba’s statement called the hurricane’s destruction the “largest humanitarian event” in Haiti since the devastating earthquake of January 2010.
Surging waters ripped away a bridge in the flooded town of Petit Goave, preventing any road travel to the hard-hit southwest. Local radio reported water shoulder high in parts of the southern city of Les Cayes.
Milriste Nelson, a 65-year-old farmer in the town of Leogane, said neighbors fled when the wind tore away the corrugated metal roof on their home. His own small yard was strewn with the fruit he depends on for his livelihood.
“All the banana trees, all the mangos, everything is gone,” Nelson said as he boiled breadfruit over a charcoal fire. “This country is going to fall deeper into misery.”
Haitian authorities had tried to evacuate people from the most vulnerable areas ahead of the storm, but many were reluctant to leave their homes. Some sought shelter only after the worst was already upon them.
Rainfall totals were predicted to reach 15 to 25 inches in Haiti, with up to 40 inches in isolated places.