PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Tomas approached Haiti on Thursday, dumping rain on fragile, crowded earthquake survivors’ camps in the poor Caribbean country, which is also reeling from a deadly cholera epidemic.
Tomas was expected to pass close to Haiti on Thursday night, carrying the threat for the largely deforested land of gusting winds, surging waves and torrential rains of up to 10 or 15 inches in some areas.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Tomas, which was packing top sustained winds of 50 miles per hour, could be near or at hurricane strength — 74 miles per hour — as its center passes Haiti. Jamaica and eastern Cuba were also likely to feel its effects.
Haitian President Rene Preval went on national radio to urge citizens to take precautions and follow evacuation recommendations. “Protect your lives,” he said.
About 1.3 million survivors of the January 12 quake in Haiti that killed more than a quarter of a million people in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation are still living in hundreds of makeshift tent camps crammed into open spaces in the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince.
Some camp residents were able to seek refuge with friends or family in more secure structures, but most huddled under their tent and tarpaulin homes as light 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.
Les Cayes, a coastal city in southern Haiti, was expected to feel the effects of Tomas before the capital, and aid workers reported intermittent rain on Thursday.
The United Nations says 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 evening, Tomas was located about 280 miles west-southwest of Port-au-Prince, and about 110 miles south-southeast of the Jamaican capital Kingston.
Tomas is expected to bring surging waves, heavy rains and possible flash flooding and mudslides to mountainous Haiti, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Earlier, an effort to move some 2,000 people from Corail, an exposed camp outside Port-au-Prince set up by the United Nations and aid groups to resettle homeless quake survivors, was initially obstructed by camp dwellers worried that authorities were trying to permanently move them out.
More than 100 yelling youths broke tables set up by aid workers to process the evacuees from the camp of some 7,700 people at the base of bare hills outside the Haitian capital.
“We are upset because they have not told us where we are going,” said Domarcand Fenel, the head of a committee of camp residents. “People believe they want to expel us.”
The partial evacuation later resumed.
“The big fear is for people on exposed mountains. These people are at high risk of landslides and flash flooding,” said Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, referring to the Corail camp residents.
Tomas swept across the Caribbean’s eastern islands as a hurricane over the weekend, killing at least five people in St. Lucia before weakening. Several more people were missing.
It was expected to pass near Jamaica and Haiti and 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 detainee operation.
The Haitian government ordered all schools closed on Thursday and Friday. In Jamaica, where Tropical Storm Nicole killed 15 people more than a month ago, schools were also closed in the capital of Kingston and some eastern parishes.
With the storm threat and the spreading epidemic, Haiti faces major disruption less than a month before November 28 presidential and legislative elections. Electoral officials have not moved to postpone the vote.
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince and Jane Sutton in Miami: Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara