The US National Hurricane Center downgraded Hurricane Matthew to a Category 4 on Saturday as the storm weakened slightly.
But as it moved away from the northern coasts of Colombia and Venezuela, Matthew remained the largest hurricane to sweep Atlantic waters since Felix in 2007, with winds reaching 155 miles per hour.
In Jamaica, where forecasters say it will make landfall by Monday, traffic congested streets and people stood in long lines at supermarkets as they made preparations. An emergency parliamentary session was called, with legislators urging the public to take unusual preparations for “one of the most severe natural disasters in quite a long while” for an island accustomed to harsh weather, reported the Jamaica Gleaner.
“At its current strength, #Matthew would be the strongest hurricane to hit Jamaica in recorded history (since 1851),” wrote meteorologist Eric Holthaus on Twitter.
In Florida, officials said they were monitoring the situation closely, with authorities in some counties recommending that residents stockpile provisions over the weekend, though it remained unclear how severely the state would be affected.
“At home,” wrote Jacksonville’s News4Jax on Friday, “preparations should include a pantry that is stocked with a week’s worth of non-perishable foods and juices; a gallon of water per person per day; a manual can opener and cooking foods and utensils; disposable plates and plasticware; medicines – including prescription drugs; flashlights and batteries; and, a manual or battery operated weather radio.”
One person has so far died in connection with the storm in the Caribbean island of St. Vincent: a 16-year-old boy whom officials say was struck by a boulder as he tried to clear a blocked storm drain, according to the Associated Press. And in Colombia’s coastal department of La Guajira, local media reported that one person died in floodwaters resulting from heavy rains.
Officials in Haiti said that preparations were under way in the south of the country, with forecasts projecting the storm’s arrival there on Monday.
"We will prepare with drinking water for the patients, with medication, with generators for electricity (and) vehicles to go look for people at their homes," Yves Domercant, head of the public hospital in Les Cayes, told Reuters.
Cuba is also bracing for a direct hit on Monday. The last big hurricane to hit the island, Sandy, killed 11 people and destroyed hundreds of homes before proceeding to lash several parts of the United States.
“There’s the threat that it sticks over Cuba, especially over the eastern part, although this could change,” José Rubiera, Cuba's national weather forecaster, told EFE.
“There’s uncertainty” about the path it could ultimately take, he said.
Cuba is well known for robust emergency-weather procedures, partly because of state powers that allow authorities to mandate evacuations and quickly mobilize heads of state institutions into leaders of emergency operations. “It is a multilevel process that starts with the young,” noted the New York Times in 2013. “Grade school students practice evacuations; high-school students monitor neighborhoods to identify weak trees and other hazards.”
“Tight state control means Cuba can mandate evacuations, mobilize quickly and put Dr. Rubiera’s face on every TV screen.”