Tropical Storm Isaac strengthened as it dumped heavy rains on Haiti yesterday, threatening floods and mudslides in a country where hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless more than two years after a devastating earthquake.
Lashing rains and high winds were reported along parts of Haiti’s southern coast and in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where more than 350,000 survivors of the 2010 earthquake are still living in fragile tent and tarpaulin camps.
Intermittent power outages affected the greater Port-au-Prince area early yesterday morning as Isaac bore down on the impoverished Caribbean country.
Isaac was about 100km south-southwest of Port-au-Prince late on Friday night, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
The storm had sustained winds of 110kph and its center was expected to pass over Haiti’s southern coast early yesterday.
Isaac’s march across the Caribbean comes as US Republicans prepare to gather in Tampa, on Florida’s central Gulf Coast, for tomorrow’s start of their national convention ahead of the November presidential election.
The convention is still expected to proceed as planned, but Gulf of Mexico operators began shutting down offshore oil and gas rigs on Friday ahead of the storm.
However, the biggest immediate concern was heavily deforested Haiti and the NHC warned there was a possibility Isaac could reach hurricane intensity before making landfall in Haiti. On Friday, the government and aid groups evacuated thousands of tent camp dwellers, but many Haitians chose to remain in their flimsy, makeshift homes, apparently out of fear they will be robbed, said Bradley Mellicker, head of disaster management for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Red Cross and IOM representatives joined government officials in trying to evacuate 8,000 of the “most vulnerable people,” including 2,500 sick and disabled, from 18 tent camps in low-lying coastal areas of Port-au-Prince.
Many Haitians, most of whom live on less than US$1 per day, consider disaster inevitable in the poorest country in the Americas.
“We live under tents. If there’s too much rain and wind, water comes in. There’s nothing we can do,” said Nicholas Absolouis, an unemployed 34-year-old mechanic at one camp for homeless people on the northern edge of the chaotic capital.
“There are still too many people living in the camps. There’s a good chance that those might be destroyed with the passage of the cyclone,” said France Hurtubise of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Haiti.
Flooding could also help reignite a cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 7,500 people in Haiti since the disease first appeared in October 2010, foreign aid workers said.
On its current course, forecasters have said Isaac would hit Cuba and the southern tip of Florida before strengthening into a Category 1 hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico and making landfall anywhere from the Florida Panhandle in the northwestern part of the state to Alabama and as far west as New Orleans.
A tropical storm warning was issued for the entire coast of south Florida on Friday, and a hurricane warning also went into effect in the Florida Keys.