It's a scenario in earthquake-stricken Haiti that aid groups have been preparing for, but no one wanted to see: a tropical cyclone bearing down on a nation where flimsy postquake tents house more than a million people and buildings that once might have served as shelters for some residents are now piles of rubble.
Aid groups and the Haitian government are trying as best they can to help people gird for tropical storm Tomas. It is expected to reach hurricane strength before making landfall overnight Friday somewhere west of Port-au-Prince, along the country's southern peninsula.
Since aid began flowing into the country after a major earthquake Jan. 12, which killed an estimated 300,000 people, aid workers have steered some of that material toward hurricane preparedness.
Residents have been building retaining walls out of sandbags to forestall mudslides and flooding. Aid workers have stockpiled tents, water purification equipment, and other emergency supplies around the country. They have set up a system of cellphone text-message alerts to keep people informed of a storm's progress. And they have been helping residents in tent cities dig drainage ditches to draw water away from their shelters.
Up to now, Haiti has taken no direct hits from storms during the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.
But between the earthquake, an outbreak of cholera that hit the city last week, and now Tomas, "everyone is very concerned. Everyone is preparing as best we can, but the bottom line is that in the humanitarian community, we're about maxed out."
Then Tomas weakened. But the storm, currently centered in the Caribbean, just off the northeastern tip of Colombia, has been regaining strength. If the latest forecast from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami holds up, Tomas will become a Category 1 hurricane by Wednesday morning – the lowest rating, but still dangerous. It could increase in strength to Category 2 before weakening a bit and making landfall sometime between Friday and Saturday morning. The storm is forecast to slice across the open-jaw-like peninsulas that frame Haiti's west coast.
As of now, Port-au-Prince stands a 50 percent chance of experiencing at least tropical-storm force winds, given the breadth of the storm. But forecasters acknowledge that this far in advance, Tomas's track remains uncertain.
Whatever the precise track, Tomas "will pose a significant threat of heavy rainfall over Haiti and the Dominican Republic late in the week," according to NHC forecasters.
Tomas emerged from a patch of storminess off the South American coast just east of the Lesser Antilles last Friday. According to Jeff Masters, a former hurricane hunter with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who now edits the weather website Weather Underground, this is the first time in the historical record that a tropical cyclone has formed in that area so late in the hurricane season.