Hurricane Matthew lashed Haiti's southwestern coast Tuesday with raging winds, driving rain and storm surge that threatened to devastate the impoverished Caribbean nation's towns and villages.
The hurricane has killed at least seven people over the past few days as it roared across the Caribbean, the Associated Press reported. This included four in the Dominican Republic, one in Haiti, one in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and one in Colombia.
The region's strongest storm in almost a decade made landfall on Haiti's Tiburon Peninsula as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 145 mph at 7 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said. It was the first major hurricane (Category 3, 4, or 5) to hit Haiti in 50 years, since Inez in 1966, Colorado State University reported.
As of 2 p.m. ET, Matthew was located about 65 miles east-southeast of Guantanamo, Cuba, the hurricane center said. It was moving to the north at 10 mph. The storm will move across the lightly populated portions of eastern Cuba later Tuesday and early Wednesday.
Matthew was inflicting major damage on Haiti, though the extent was not immediately known, said Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, director of the country's Civil Protection Agency, told the AP.
"It's much too early to know how bad things are, but we do know there are a lot of houses that have been destroyed or damaged in the south," Jean-Baptiste said. Many streets were flooded or blocked with fallen trees throughout the southwestern peninsula.
Heavy wind and rain combined with massive waves to pound the tourist town of Port Salut.
“The winds are making so many bad noises. We’re just doing our best to stay calm,” Jenniflore Desrosiers, taking refuge with her family in her fragile cinderblock home, told the AP.
More than 6,400 people have been evacuated to temporary shelters in Haiti, Agence France-Presse reported.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is already struggling to regain its footing almost seven years after an earthquake and ensuing cholera epidemic ravaged the nation.
It remains particularly vulnerable to vicious weather storms because it is one of the most deforested countries in the world: Less than 2% of the land still has trees.
The country also has relatively steep terrain as well, which can make it prone to landslides and mudslides.
PHOTOS: Hurricane Matthew lashes Caribbean
But some shantytown residents have been reluctant to evacuate because they fear their possessions may be stolen. "If we lose our things we are not going to get them back!” Toussaint Laine, an unemployed man who lives with his family in a shack in Tabarre, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, told the Associated Press.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti suffered one of its worst natural disasters when a magnitude-7.0 earthquake ripped through Port-au-Prince. Houses collapsed, many sinking down mountain slopes. Roads crumbled, people were trapped under concrete for days; 230,000 people died.
The earthquake caused significant damage in Port-au-Prince, and government buildings such as the Presidential Palace and the National Assembly building were damaged or destroyed. Infrastructure was gutted, and at least 1 million people were forced to live in tent cities.
An epidemic of cholera, an infectious and often fatal bacterial disease of the small intestine that is often contracted from infected water supplies. broke out about 10 months after the earthquake, killing thousands more.
Since the earthquake, the deadliest storm system in Haiti was Hurricane Sandy in 2012, according to Weather Underground. While Sandy did not make a direct hit on the island, it resulted in 75 deaths, $250 million in damage and one of its worst fallouts: a resurgence of cholera that infected about 5,000 people.
Before the 2010 earthquake, the most vicious hurricane season in Haiti was 2008 when four storms struck: Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. Nearly 800 people were killed; 22,000 homes were destroyed; 70% of the country's crops were lost, according to reliefweb.org.
A separate storm, Tropical Storm Nicole, formed in the central Atlantic Tuesday, the hurricane center said. Nicole poses no threat to land.