Hurricane Matthew twisted toward the Bahamas and Florida’s east coast on Wednesday after killing at least 26 people and damaging a majority of homes in Haiti’s south, prompting the hard-hit country to postpone a long-awaited presidential election.
The powerful Category 3 hurricane, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, whipped Cuba and Haiti with 140 mile-per-hour (230 kph) winds and torrential rains on Tuesday, pummelling towns and destroying livestock, crops and homes.
In the United States, more than 1.5 million people were urged to evacuate the southeastern coast and Florida Governor Rick Scott warned residents to prepare for a possible direct hit that could be catastrophic.
Hundreds of thousands of people had been evacuated from the path of Matthew, which caused severe flooding and killed four people in the Dominican Republic as well as at least 22 in Haiti. The two countries share the island of Hispaniola.
The death toll in Haiti included at least eight people killed by falling trees and six others swept away by swollen rivers, authorities said.
The storm carved a path of devastation through southwestern Haiti, dumping boats and debris on coastal roads hit by surging seas and flooding residential areas heavily.
Some 80 percent of homes were damaged in Haiti’s Sud Department, which has a population of more than 700,000, a government official said in a meeting with U.N. officials. Some 11,000 people were in shelters in the province.
In the town of Jeremie, people were cooking and sleeping outside because most houses were either knocked down or severely damaged. Similar scenes were reported across the coastal towns of the south.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, had been set to hold a repeatedly postponed presidential election on Sunday, but the country’s electoral council delayed it again in the aftermath of Matthew. No new date has yet been set.
Haiti was a particular concern because it is prone to mudslides due to extensive deforestation, and tens of thousands of people are still living in tents and makeshift dwellings after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the Haitian government estimated 350,000 people needed immediate assistance.
Chris Bessey, country representative at charity Catholic Relief Services, said on-the-ground reports from the small coastal town of Dame Marie indicated that much of the town had been destroyed.
Mourad Wahba, the U.N. secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Haiti, said the storm had triggered “the largest humanitarian event” witnessed in Haiti since the 2010 quake.
The U.S. government said it was ready to help the afflicted, and about 300 U.S. Marines set off on the USS Mesa Verde to provide disaster relief in Haiti, the Marines said on Twitter.
There were no immediate reports of deaths in Cuba but Matthew devastated the picture-postcard tourist town of Baracoa, Cuba’s oldest colonial settlement, in the province of Guantanamo. It gutted many houses there, dumping hunks of cement, wooden beams, roof tiles and fallen electrical lines on the streets.