MIAMI – Hurricane Matthew weakened slightly on Saturday as it headed toward Jamaica and Cuba, but with winds reaching 145 miles per hour (230 kph), islanders braced for its arrival as forecasters warned the storm was still powerful enough to wreck homes.
Mathew is expected to make land fall along the east coast of the United States in a weaker state. The storm is expected effect the east coast of Florida sometime as soon as Monday and at the latest Tuesday.
Matthew, the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean since Felix in 2007, was forecast to make landfall as a major storm on Monday on Jamaica’s southern coast, home to the country’s capital, Kingston, and its only oil refinery. It could also affect tourist destinations such as Montego Bay in the north.
With Matthew about 390 miles (625 km) southeast of Kingston, the U.S. National Hurricane Center ranked it at Category 4 of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity. Earlier it had been ranked at the top Category 5.
Rain fell on the Jamaican capital on Saturday and authorities said they were taking all possible precautions.
“The government is on high alert,” said Robert Morgan, director of communications at the prime minister’s office, which hosted an emergency meeting to plan for the storm on Friday.
Disaster coordinators, police and troops are on standby and shelters are being opened across the island, Morgan said.
Cuba declared the first stage of an emergency in five eastern provinces. In its second city, Santiago de Cuba, the ruling Communist Party opened shelters and organized volunteer teams to clean storm drains and gather food stocks.
Cuba has a solid track record of preparing for storms. The last big one to hit was Sandy in 2012, which though weaker than Matthew, caused major damage to property and killed 11 people.
Matthew’s center will move across the central Caribbean Sea on Saturday and toward Jamaica and Haiti late on Sunday, U.S. forecasters said.
Jamaica was hard hit by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Matthew could be the most powerful storm to cross the island since records began, meteorologist Eric Holthaus said on Twitter.
Forecasters issued a hurricane watch for portions of Haiti, with Matthew forecast to skim past its southern coast, which is prone to devastating flooding. Officials said preparation efforts were focused in the south.
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