PORT-AU-PRINCE - Government officials and aid partners in earthquake- and cholera-ravaged Haiti scrambled on Monday to prepare crowded quake survivor camps and coastal towns for a possible hit by a hurricane later this week.
Tropical Storm Tomas, which is heading westward across the eastern Caribbean sea, is expected to turn north toward Haiti and Dominican Republic by the end of the week, and restrengthen as a hurricane, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Jamaica also could be impacted, although the precise track of the storm remained uncertain, the forecasters said.
Tomas now threatens another humanitarian emergency for disaster-prone Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest state.
Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake in January and is grappling with a cholera epidemic that has killed at least 330 people so far and sickened nearly 5,000 more.
"This storm is approaching at a time when aid agencies in Haiti are already stretched to the limit," said Nigel Fisher, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in Haiti.
"The humanitarian challenges involved are among the most complex I've seen in my entire career," Fisher added in a statement.
As a Category 1 hurricane over the weekend, Tomas battered Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent in the Windward Islands, ripping roofs off homes and knocking down trees and power lines. Insurance experts were estimating damage-linked insurance payouts for the three islands would top $10 million.
In St. Lucia, the west coast tourist town of Soufriere, the area hardest hit by Tomas as it passed, was cut off by landslides blocking roads and accessible only by sea, the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) said.
A NEMO spokesperson told Reuters emergency services were checking unconfirmed reports that at least five people, and possibly more, were killed in the Soufriere landslides.
At 5 p.m. on Monday, Tomas was carrying top sustained winds of 45 miles per hour, and was located about 65 miles northeast of Aruba, moving westwards, the Miami-based hurricane center said.
"Haiti or Jamaica are the most likely targets of Tomas," hurricane expert Jeff Masters of private U.S. forecaster Weather Underground wrote in his blog, citing computer forecast models.
But he added weather conditions meant the exact track of Tomas remained uncertain, and the storm could still be in the Caribbean a week from now.
CAMPS SEEN VULNERABLE TO WIND, RAIN
Haitian officials and aid workers are worried that the powerful winds and torrential rain associated with Tomas will menace more than 1.3 million homeless earthquake survivors living in tent and tarpaulin camps scattered across the hilly capital Port-au-Prince.
In September, a powerful storm in the capital killed at least six people, injured 70 and destroyed or damaged the tent or tarpaulin homes of more than 10,000 families. Floods and mudslides in mid-October killed 10 more people.
U.N. agencies and aid groups are rushing emergency supplies of medicine, food and shelter materials to the camps and to the coastal towns of Les Cayes and Gonaives, which could be hit by storm surges and flooding.
"We need emergency shelter. We need water and sanitation supplies. And we need as much of it as possible in place before Hurricane Tomas hits," Fisher said.
With a full-scale evacuation of camps and threatened coastal communities deemed impossible, authorities urged those who could do so to seek more secure refuge in the homes of friends and family.
The United Nations said Haiti's government had agreed to the United States sending the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima to support logistics operations, which the 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the country will also be assisting.
The magnitude 7 earthquake that hit Haiti's capital on January 12 killed up to 300,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Christopher Wilson)