Storm Tomas loses speed, but Haiti and Jamaica remain on alert

Storm Tomas was downgraded today to a tropical depression, but forecasters expect the storm to pick up speed before it touches down on Haiti on Friday.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
A girl walks in the Caradeux Camp for people displaced by the January earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Nov. 2. Forecasters predict storm Tomas will veer north toward Haiti and perhaps regain hurricane strength.

Haiti is bracing for heavy rain and wind to hit Friday, even as tropical storm Tomas lost speed over the past 24 hours and was downgraded to a tropical depression.

With 1.3 million people living in flimsy tent camps in the capital of Port-au-Prince, and a cholera outbreak in the countryside threatening to spread to the capital, Tomas threatens to wreak havoc on a country already devastated by an earthquake in January that killed up to 300,000 people. The government and international organizations are positioning supplies and manpower to respond to Tomas.

The storm is currently swirling over the Caribbean about 275 miles southeast of Jamaica and 390 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami. Jamaica, which expects Tomas to hit Thursday, has downgraded its alert from “hurricane watch” to “tropical storm watch.” The Dominican Republic, southeastern Cuba, southeastern Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos are all on watch.

Tomas's wind speeds had dropped to 35 m.p.h. this morning, from 40 m.p.h. Tuesday, the NHC said in its 11 a.m. update. “Some strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours,” the NHC said, “and Tomas could regain tropical storm strength on Thursday.”

Tomas could still grow into a Category 1 hurricane (wind speeds of 74-95 m.p.h.) over the next 48 hours, potentially becoming Category 2 (wind speeds of 96-110 m.p.h.) by the time it hits Haiti. However, the Associated Press reported today that forecasters disagree whether Tomas will regain hurricane status.

Aid groups are preparing for the worst.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of 800 NGOs operating in Haiti, said it is working to ensure the safety of patients even as it continues to deal with the cholera outbreak in the countryside. In a statement today, MSF said it is moving patients to stronger shelters, preparing stocks and response teams, and “pre-positioning a medical team in Les Cayes, in southern Haiti, which is projected to be affected by the storm.”

Haiti's Civil Protection Office appealed for residents of Port-au-Prince's tent cities to seek safer refuge – although it is unclear where they can go, considering they would likely have already left the unsanitary camps if they could. "But for far too many Haitians, life has changed little since the moments after the temblor, with many still living in precarious makeshift camps, living day by day, with few prospects for work, and fearing a new disaster as the hurricane season gets underway," reported The Christian Science Monitor in July.

Storm Tomas has already proved deadly, causing 14 deaths Sunday on St. Lucia in the eastern Caribbean while dumping two years’ worth of rain on the island. The storm also wrecked 1,200 homes on nearby St. Vincent, according to the Barbados Gazette.

The NHC forecasts Haiti will see an average of 5 to 10 inches of rainfall, with pockets of up to 15 inches. “The rains could cause life-threatening flash flood and mudslides over mountainous terrain,” the NHC said.

Haiti has thus far avoided any hurricanes in 2010, though heavy rains in mid-October caused mudslides and flooding that killed 10 people.

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