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Haiti braced for a cruel new battering on Thursday as Tropical Storm Isaac swept across the Caribbean toward the shattered island, gathering strength and threatening to reach hurricane force.
About 400 000 residents of the western hemisphere's poorest country were dangerously exposed to Isaac's gathering fury in makeshift squatter camps, two years after an earthquake destroyed the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.
“They remain amongst the most vulnerable, should the storm hit the city,” said Jean-Claude Mukadi, Haiti national director for humanitarian group World Vision.
“Without a stable sanitation system or permanent housing, heavy rain and wind can create much larger problems like disease from water contamination.”
Residents in the neighbouring Dominican Republic and on nearby Puerto Rico rushed to erect defenses against the expected wind and rain, set to sweep on to Cuba and the southern United States by the weekend.
“Isaac could become a hurricane as it nears Haiti on Friday... Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” the Miami-based US National Hurricane Centre said.
At 00.00 GMT, Isaac was “a little stronger,” with maximum sustained winds of 75 kilometres per hour as it headed west-northwest at 26 kilometres per hour, according to the NHC.
Isaac was centred about 340 kilometres southeast of Santo Domingo.
The NHC said the eye of the storm would approach the Dominican Republic's southern coast later Thursday, move near or over that area and Haiti on Friday before nearing Cuba, home to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
When it makes landfall on Hispaniola, the island divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Isaac is expected to dump up to 51 centimetres of rain on hillsides already scoured by soil erosion.
“These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the NHC said.
Classes were cancelled and hospitals boosted their staff levels in at-risk areas of the Dominican Republic. Authorities have urged locals to prepare to face floods, rising waters and mudslides due to heavy rains.
In southwestern Puerto Rico, locals stocked up on water, fuel and supplies ahead of the storm, and restaurants, hotels and homes tied down outdoor chairs and tables. Heavy rain could be seen far out to sea.
Haiti is particularly vulnerable because thousands of people are still living rough after the 2010 earthquake killed an estimated 250 000 people.
Several hundred people were evacuated on Thursday from Guantanamo, which houses the alleged September 11 plotters and other detainees from the so-called “war on terror.”
Legal proceedings against the alleged masterminds of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington were postponed as the base buckled down for the storm.
Isaac could then reach Florida as a hurricane on Monday and Tuesday, just in time for the Republican Party's National Convention.
Republican delegates from around the country will be in Tampa for four days to formally nominate former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
Isaac is approaching Florida as the state marks the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, a maximum level category five storm that killed 26 Americans and left some $26 billion in material damage.
Governor Rick Scott, while stressing it was still early to predict Isaac's path, urged Florida residents to prepare for the worst, saying: “Every family should be prepared to sustain themselves for up to 72 hours.”
Meanwhile, a second tropical depression gained strength in the eastern Atlantic and became Tropical Storm Joyce, though there was no immediate threat to land and it was moving relatively slowly without gaining power. - Sapa-AFP