* Tropical Storm Tomas to pass near Haiti Thursday night
* Quake camp dwellers huddle under tents, some evacuate
* President Preval urges Haitians to “protect your lives” (Adds quotes, updates storm strength and position)
By Matthew Bigg
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Strengthening Tropical Storm Tomas drenched Haiti on Thursday, threatening fragile, crowded earthquake survivors’ camps in the poor Caribbean country that is also reeling from a deadly cholera epidemic.
Tomas was expected to pass close to Haiti overnight, endangering the largely deforested land with gusting winds, surging waves and torrential rains of up to 10 or 15 inches (25 or 38 cm) in some areas.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Tomas was strengthening. It carried top sustained winds of 65 miles per hour (100 kph) and could be near or at hurricane strength — 74 miles per hour (119 kph) — as it passed Haiti, Jamaica and eastern Cuba on Friday.
Haitian President Rene Preval went on national radio to urge citizens to take precautions and follow evacuation recommendations. “Protect your lives,” he said.
A Jan. 12 quake in Haiti killed more than a quarter of a million people in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. About 1.3 million survivors still live in hundreds of makeshift tent camps crammed into open spaces in the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince.
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Camp dwellers hunkered down for a miserable night as rain fell steadily. Every camp has a committee charged with keeping order, and several committee leaders said they were trying to alleviate conditions for the most vulnerable.
“We are putting old people and young families in the Red Cross shelter (tent),” said Yves-Marie Sopin at a camp for around 5,000 in the grounds of the prime minister’s residence.
Alleyways that run between a maze of tents at the Acra 2 camp, set on a steep hillside, had become impassable because of slippery mud and doing anything constructive was difficult, said Wilson Almoza, a camp leader.
Some camp residents sought refuge with friends or family in more secure structures, but most huddled under their tent and tarpaulin homes as the rain fell.
“We have heard that there will be a storm but we don’t know much about it and we haven’t taken precautions. We are in God’s hands,” said Ave Lise Mesila, in her white tarpaulin tent.
She and two other women and five small children sat in near-total darkness in the small, smoky tent among hundreds of others in the Acra 2 camp, which climbs a steep hillside in the Juvenat neighborhood.
The United Nations said the storm will almost certainly exacerbate a cholera epidemic that has so far killed 442 people and sickened more than 6,700, according to government figures.
On Thursday night, Tomas was about 230 miles (370 km) west-southwest of Port-au-Prince, and about 100 miles (160 km) east-southeast of the Jamaican capital Kingston.
Tomas was expected to bring surging waves, heavy rains and possible flash flooding and mudslides to mountainous Haiti, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
“The big fear is for people on exposed mountains. These people are at high risk of landslides and flash flooding,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
Tomas swept across the Caribbean’s eastern islands as a hurricane during the weekend, killing at least five people in St. Lucia. Several more people were missing.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for Haiti, the Turks and Caicos Islands and parts of the Bahamas and Cuba.
At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in eastern Cuba, military officials warned the 174 foreign captives detained there that a storm was on the way, and laid in supplies of water and packaged meals.
“Detainees are secure in sound structures to ensure their safety and well being,” said Navy Commander Tamsen Reese, a spokeswoman for the detention operation.
Haitian schools were closed on Thursday and Friday. Schools were also closed in parts of Jamaica, where Tropical Storm Nicole killed 15 people more than a month ago.
With the storm threat and the spreading cholera epidemic, Haiti faces major disruption less than a month before Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections. Electoral officials have not moved to postpone the vote. (Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince, Horace Helps in Kingston and Kevin Gray and Jane Sutton in Miami; editing by Philip Barbara)