Hurricane Matthew smashed its way through the Caribbean and roared toward Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba on Sunday, a Category 4 storm powered by 140-mph winds that could pose a threat to the United States by week's end.
Matthew briefly reached maximum Category 5 status Friday, making it the strongest Atlantic hurricane in almost a decade. Early Sunday, the storm was located 310 miles southeast of Jamaica and was crawling west at 3 mph.
The latest National Hurricane Center projection had Matthew reaching the southern tip of Haiti late Monday, but tropical storm conditions were expected to reach Jamaica and Haiti as soon as late Sunday and eastern Cuba early Monday.
"Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the hurricane center warned on its Facebook page.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for the north coast of Haiti, Jamaica and eastern Cuba. Watches were issued for the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas and parts of Cuba.
Matthew could dump up to 25 inches of rain over much of southern Haiti, with "isolated maximum amounts of 40 inches," the hurricane center warned. Eastern Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba could see 10 to 20 inches of rain with 25 inches in isolated areas. In addition, storm surges in the region could cause catastrophic flooding.
In Haiti, evacuations were underway in high risk areas. Families were being urged to stock up on food and water.
"This could be catastrophic for some places, particularly Haiti," National Hurricane Center meteorologist Dennis Feltgen told USA TODAY. "This is an area where trees just don't exist (due to deforestation). The terrain is stripped, and the threat of major flash floods and mudslides is very real."
In Jamaica, Prime Minister Andrew Holness told Reuters his nation was braced for the storm, which could be the most severe for his nation since Gilbert killed more than 40 Jamaicans and dumped more than 30 inches of rain in some areas in 1988.
"The impact of the hurricane will probably be similar or greater than Hurricane Gilbert, but our preparedness would be far better," Holness said.
Long lines formed at stores and gas stations as Jamaicans prepared for the worst.
"This is not a joking matter," Desmond McKenzie, minister of local government and community development, told Agence France-Presse. "There is no room for any mischief to be made as we face one of the most severe natural disasters in quite a long while."
Matthew was expected to reach Cuba on Tuesday, potentially making a direct hit on the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, base spokeswoman Julie Ann Ripley told the Associated Press. She said mandatory evacuation of non-essential personnel was underway, including about 700 family members of military personnel. About 5,500 people living on the base, including 61 men held at the detention center.
Feltgen said the storm, which at its peak was the strongest in the Atlantic Basin since Felix in 2007, could approach south Florida as soon as Wednesday. But he said it was too early to determine what the U.S. impact will be.
"The good news is that we have plenty of time to watch this, the bad news is we don't know yet what we (the U.S.) will be dealing with," Feltgen said. "So we need to have everyone on alert."