PORT-AU-PRINCE Authorities on Sunday urged hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in crowded tent camps to seek new shelter as Hurricane Tomas roared across the Caribbean with Haiti in its projected path.
Tomas was downgraded to a Category 1 storm after ripping off roofs and knocking down trees and power lines across several small eastern Caribbean islands.
It is expected to weaken to a tropical storm in the next 24 hours, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
But the storm is seen regaining strength by Wednesday as it passes south of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where more than one million survivors of a devastating January 12 earthquake are living in sprawling tent camps.
Under some models of the storm's track, Tomas is forecast to turn to the north and head toward Haiti as a hurricane as early as Thursday. Other projections show the storm possibly shifting course farther east toward the Dominican Republic or even west toward Jamaica.
Any heavy rains and powerful winds from Tomas would pose a significant threat to the some 1.3 million homeless survivors now living in tent and tarpaulin camps in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
Tomas, the 12th hurricane of a very active 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, was packing top sustained winds of 75 miles per hour, the Miami-based center said.
In Haiti, the government and international aid groups are already struggling with a major cholera epidemic that has killed at least 330 people and sickened over 4,700 people.
As Tomas churned over the open Caribbean sea, officials appealed to Haitians in tent camps to start evacuating, encouraging them to travel to the homes of family or friends.
"We have launched an appeal for voluntary evacuation, particularly in the camps," said Alta Jean-Baptiste, the director of the Haiti's Civil Protection Office.
"We have plans to evacuate the camps but we won't be able to evacuate everybody."
Tomas was located 265 miles west of St Lucia, and was moving west at 12 mph, the Miami-based hurricane center said.
The hurricane swept over St. Lucia and St. Vincent on Saturday, damaging homes, knocking out power and blocking roads with flooding and debris. There were no immediate reports of any deaths.
Nadia Lochard, the coordinator for civil protection in Haiti's western department, said authorities were showing camp dwellers how to properly tie up their tents before evacuating.
She said even heavy rains in the country's southern region could potentially impact Port-au-Prince since several of Haiti's rivers originate in the area and extend to the capital.
At least 10 people were killed in flooding and mudslides triggered by three days of torrential rains in Haiti in mid-October when rainstorms swept the open-air camps.
The magnitude-7 earthquake that hit Haiti's capital on January 12 killed as many as 300,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless.
The 2010 Atlantic hurricane season has produced 12 hurricanes, five of them major, but the United States has escaped a significant hurricane landfall so far.
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Sandra Maler)