The fiercest Caribbean storm in almost a decade ripped into Haiti's southwestern peninsula early on Tuesday, packing 145 mile-per-hour (230 kph) winds and storm surges that killed at least one person and damaged homes.
The eye of the violent Category 4 storm was just 35 miles off the western tip of Haiti at 5 a.m EDT (0900 GMT), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, pounding coastal villages with strong gusts.
One man died when a wave crashed through his home in the beach town of Port Salut, Haiti's civil protection service said. He had been too sick to leave for a shelter, officials said.
Overnight, Haitians living in vulnerable coastal shacks on the Tiburon Peninsula frantically sought shelter as Hurricane Matthew closed in, bringing heavy rain and driving the ocean into seaside towns.
"This storm surge will also limit rainfall runoff in some places, aggravating flooding, especially in coastal locations where swollen rivers cannot drain," Weather Underground forecaster Jeff Masters said in a blog.
Up to three feet of rain is forecast to fall over denuded hills prone to flash floods and mudslides, threatening villages as well as shanty towns in the capital Port-au-Prince, where heavy rain fell overnight.
"Life-threatening rain, wind and storm surges" was spreading over parts of the country, the hurricane center said in its advisory.
The outer bands of the cyclone had already reached the area late on Monday, flooding dozens of houses in the town of Les Anglais when the ocean rose, the local mayor said. In the town of Les Cayes on the southern coast, the wind bent trees and the power went out.
Children, Prisoners Moved
"We have gusts of wind hitting the whole area and the people have fled to a shelter," said Les Anglais mayor Jean-Claude Despierre. In Tiburon, another town nearby, the mayor said people who had been reluctant to leave their homes also ran for cover when the sea rose.
"Everyone is trying to find a safe place to protect themselves, the situation is very difficult," mayor Remiza Denize said, describing large waves hitting the town.
Poor Haitians are often loath to leave home in the face of storms, fearing their few belongings will be stolen.
Civil protection authorities said 130 children were evacuated by bus to a high school in the capital from an orphanage in the shoreside Cite Soleil slum, made up of tin shacks and open sewers and known as Haiti's largest shanty town.
On the north coast, about 300 detainees were transferred from their prison near the sea in the town of Jeremie, the interior ministry said.
The cyclone comes at a bad time for Haiti, where tens of thousands of people still live in tents after a 2010 earthquake that killed upwards of 200,000 people.
Cholera introduced by U.N. peacekeepers is expected to rise in the October rainy season, and the country was due to hold a long-delayed presidential election on Oct. 9.
The office of Interim President Jocelerme Privert said there was no change to the election date.
Crawling north at about 9 miles-per-hour (15 kph), the strongest storm since Hurricane Felix in 2009 threatens to linger long enough for its winds and rain to cause great damage in Haiti, where it will spend much of the day before hitting Cuba and the Bahamas later on Tuesday.
It will possibly reach Florida by Thursday as a major hurricane, though weaker than at present, the hurricane Center 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.
In Les Cayes about 150 people huddled without electricity or food in the town's largest shelter, a school.
"Since yesterday we've had nothing ... We must sleep on the floor ... Everyone is hungry," said Erick Cange, 69 years old, a resident of the La Savanne neighborhood surrounding the school.
The conditions in the shelter compared unfavorably with Haiti's neighbor Cuba, where authorities spent days organizing teams of volunteers to move residents to safety and secure property.
The storm is expected to make a direct hit later on Tuesday in the province of Guantanamo, the disputed home to a U.S. Naval base and military prison but also a small Cuban city.
"Food is guaranteed and we have a generator that will guarantee that the kitchen keeps on working in case of a power cut," said Alexis Iglesias, head of the evacuation committee at Guantanamo University which was being used as shelter, where some 400 people were staying.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said on Monday it was providing a combined $400,000 in aid to Haiti and Jamaica. The agency said in a statement it had pre-positioned relief supplies and was preparing to ship in additional supplies to the central Caribbean.