Thousands of Haitians are still in vulnerable coastal areas as Hurricane Matthew bears down, despite the possibility of “catastrophic” damage from the storm’s 220 kilometre per hour winds.

Key points:

  • Matthew is expected to make landfall Monday night (local time)
  • Experts fear the slow-moving but powerful nature of the storm
  • 150,000 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes in Haiti

The centre of Matthew, a violent category four storm, is expected to close in on south-western Haiti on Monday night (local time), the US National Hurricane Centre said.

The storm is now forecast to reach the Bahamas on Tuesday and possibly reach Florida by Thursday as a major hurricane, though weaker than at present — before that, it will hit Cuba.

It veered from Jamaica but the slow-moving cyclone is still forecast to bring gale-force winds and dump hazardous amounts of rain on the island.

Crawling north at just 11 km/h, the storm threatens to linger enough for its winds and rain to cause great damage, especially over Haiti where deforestation exacerbates flooding and mudslides.

Alta Jean-Baptiste, head of the Haiti’s Department of Civil Protection, said one man was killed by large waves at sea over the weekend, and another went missing when his boat capsized, despite warnings to stay on dry land.

A combination of weak government, deforestation and precarious living conditions make Haiti susceptible to natural disasters.

More than 200,000 people were killed when a magnitude-7 earthquake struck in 2010.

“It has the potential of being catastrophic,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the Miami-based hurricane centre.

“We’re looking at rain being measured in feet rather than inches,” he said.

Haiti’s coastal city of Les Cayes is on Matthew’s predicted path, and some residents of homes just feet away from the ocean refused to move into government shelters ahead of dangerous predicted storm surges.

The storm comes at a bad time for Haiti, which is set to hold a long-delayed presidential election next Sunday.

‘Imagine the disaster we may face here’

On Monday, Frederic Hislain, mayor of the country’s largest slum, the oceanside Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince, called on the Government to evacuate 150,000 people whose homes he said were threatened.

“Those people are living all along the seashore in a bunch of huts which usually can’t even really protect them from ordinary rain,” he said.

“Now we are talking about a strong hurricane. Imagine the disaster we may have to face here.”

Haitians are often reluctant to leave their homes in the face of impending storms, fearing their belongings will be stolen.

Matthew, was about 193 kilometres south of westernmost Haiti at 8pm EDT Monday (11:00am AEDT), the US hurricane centre said.

Jamaicans stock up with supplies ahead of Hurricane Matthew.

Jamaica’s Kingston saw light showers most of the morning on Monday, with grey, overcast skies.

At the National Arena, which has been turned into a temporary shelter, Yvonne Nelson, of the Jamaica Red Cross said there were 52 people registered and the arena has a capacity for between 300-500 people.

“People don’t want to leave their homes because they don’t know what’s going to happen … maybe someone will rob their homes. They are afraid of losing all their valuable things,” she said.

In both Jamaica and Haiti, authorities shut the main airports to wait for the storm to pass.

In Cuba, which Matthew is due to reach on Tuesday, evacuation operations were well underway, with most tourists in the eastern town of Santiago de Cuba moved inland and given instructions on where to shelter in hotels during the hurricane.