PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti — Hurricane Matthew headed toward the southern Bahamas with its dangerous winds early Wednesday, leaving behind widespread damage and human suffering in Haiti’s poor, rural southwestern peninsula, where the hardest-hit area was cut off by flooding.
At least 11 deaths have been blamed on the powerful storm during its weeklong march across the Caribbean, five of them in Haiti. But with a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the western tip of Haiti was isolated and there was no word on dead and injured there.
Hours after Matthew swept onto the remote area with 145 mph winds, government leaders said they weren’t close to fully gauging the impact in the vulnerable, flood-prone country where less powerful storms have killed thousands.
“What we know is that many, many houses have been damaged. Some lost rooftops and they’ll have to be replaced, while others were totally destroyed,” Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph said.
After making landfall Tuesday night near Cuba’s sparsely populated eastern tip with no immediate reports of major damage, the center of the slightly weakened but still powerful storm moved back over open waters.
A hurricane hunter aircraft found Matthew’s eye was about 35 miles north-northwest of the tip of eastern Cuba before dawn Wednesday.
Forecasters said strong winds, heavy rains and a dangerous storm surge were starting to spread over the Bahamas as Hurricane Matthew approached early Wednesday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the powerful Category 3 hurricane was centered at 5 a.m. about 65 miles north-northwest of the eastern tip of Cuba. The eye was also located about 155 miles south-southeast of the Bahamas’ Long Island.
The storm was packing top sustained winds of 125 mph and was moving north at 10 mph, with some strengthening forecast in coming days. Forecasters say the hurricane will cross the Bahamas through Thursday and be very near Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening.
Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie voiced concern about the potential impact on the sprawling archipelago off Florida’s east coast.
“We’re worried because we do not control nature,” he said.
The hurricane center said winds had slightly decreased overnight as Matthew dropped from a Category 4 to the still powerful Category 3 storm. But forecasters warned such fluctuations in intensity were to be expected and that Matthew remained a potent and dangerous storm.
There was growing concern on the U.S. East Coast, which was expected to come under threat after Matthew made a two-day surge up the length of the Bahamas. People raced to supermarkets, gas stations and hardware stores, buying up groceries, water, plywood, tarps, batteries and propane.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she would issue an evacuation order Wednesday so 1 million people would have time to leave the coast. The Red Cross put out a call for volunteers there.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged coastal residents to prepare for the possibility of a direct hit and line up three days’ worth of food, water and medicine. The White House said relief supplies were being moved to emergency staging areas in the Southeast.
The easternmost points in Cuba’s easternmost province Guantanamo were still getting assaulted by hurricane force winds and rain late Tuesday night, reported CBS News’ Portia Siegelbaum from Havana.
The city of Baracoa faced the most difficult situation because of its antiquated drainage system and overflowing rivers adding to the flooding from high waves and storm surge. Earlier in the day, wind gusts ripped off the roof of a small tourist hotel, “La Rusa,” on Baracoa’s coast.
A Baracoa resident, Barbaro Abad, spoke via cell phone to Cuban TV. He called the situation “very difficult.” Houses next door and behind him had collapsed. He said he could hear the wind and rain pounding on the roof and walls of his home, making them tremble.
In Haiti, where international aid efforts were stymied Tuesday because of the lack of access to the hardest-hit areas, many residents of flooded areas seen by Associated Press reporters were wading through shin-high waters.
Muddy rivers and tributaries continued to rise as water flowed down hillsides and mountains, making more flash floods and mudslides possible even Matthew tracked away from the country.
Matthew was at one point a Category 5 storm, making it the most powerful hurricane in the region in nearly a decade. It blew ashore around dawn in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and a place where many people live in shacks of wood or concrete blocks.
Mourad Wahba, U.N. secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Haiti, said at least 10,000 people were in shelters and hospitals were overflowing and running short of water. Wahba’s statement called the hurricane’s destruction the “largest humanitarian event” in Haiti since the devastating earthquake of January 2010.
Surging waters ripped away a bridge in the flooded town of Petit Goave, preventing any road travel to the hard-hit southwest.
Local radio reported shoulder-high water in parts of the southern city of Les Cayes.
Matthew swept away parts of Les Cayes, and resident George Elie told CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann it was devastating.
“Whole houses. Everything is gone. … It’s like a bulldozer just passed by. … I can tell you it’s a big disaster…” he said.
Milriste Nelson, a 65-year-old farmer in the town of Leogane, said neighbors fled when the wind tore away the corrugated metal roof on their home. His own small yard was strewn with the fruit he depends on for his livelihood.
“All the banana trees, all the mangos, everything is gone,” Nelson said as he boiled breadfruit over a charcoal fire. “This country is going to fall deeper into misery.”
Haitian authorities had tried to evacuate people from the most vulnerable areas ahead of the storm, but many were reluctant to leave their homes. Some sought shelter only after the worst was already upon them.
Before cellular communications went out in the southwestern town of Jeremie, one resident described seeing panicked people who hadn’t evacuated frantically seeking shelter.
“Some people who lived by the sea are walking with their things through flooded streets looking for somewhere to go,” said Iralien St. Louis, a photographer who was hunkered down at his home.
Rainfall totals were predicted to reach 15 to 25 inches in Haiti, with up to 40 inches in isolated places.