PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti/VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — The Virginia-based humanitarian organization Operation Blessing International is preparing for the worst if a tropical storm hits Haiti.
Operation Blessing says staff from the Virginia Beach organization is scheduled to arrive in Haiti on Friday ahead of Tropical Storm Isaac. The storm was approaching hurricane strength on Thursday and expected to move into the Gulf Coast early next week.
Ahead of Isaac, Operation Blessing is filling reserve fuel tanks, delivering clean water to a small fishing community and preparing an emergency response boat, among many other actions.
Operation Blessing says it was among the first responders to the impoverished island in 2010 after a devastating earthquake. The organization says Haiti is ill-prepared to deal with a storm with many still living in tents and makeshift shelters.
Meanwhile, Isaac strengthened as it swirled toward vulnerable Haiti on Friday evening, threatening to bring punishing rains to people still without homes after the 2010 earthquake, but unlikely to gain enough steam to strike as a hurricane.
Forecasters expected the storm to stay below hurricane force until it reached the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, and they shifted the projected track back eastward where it remained a threat to Tampa, Fla., where the Republican National Convention starts Monday.
In Haiti, the government and international aid groups were prepared to evacuate several thousand people from settlement camps that sprang up in the aftermath of the earthquake but there were few takers.
Isaac was expected to dump up to eight to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) of rain on the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Haiti is heavily deforested and just a few hours of steady rain can trigger deadly mudslides.
“That kind of rain is going to cause some life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami.
Isaac was centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south-southeast of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, Friday evening, and its maximum sustained winds had increased to 65 mph (100 kph). It was moving west at 16 mph (26 kph). Tropical force winds extended nearly 200 miles (321 kilometers) from the storm’s center.
Cuba declared a state of alert Friday for six eastern provinces, according to a Civil Defense announcement read on the afternoon news, and five central provinces were put on preliminary watch.
“Vacationers in tourist installations of those regions have begun to be evacuated,” Radio Rebelde said. “In the coming hours, people in areas at greatest risk of flooding will be transported to safe places.”
In flood-prone Haiti, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe urged people to avoid crossing rivers and to stay calm, saying “panic creates more problems.” He said the government had set aside about $50,000 in emergency funds and had buses and 32 boats on standby for evacuations.
But among many Haitians, the notion of disaster preparedness in a country where most people get by on about $2 a day was met with a shrug.
“We don’t have houses that can bear a hurricane,” said Jeanette Lauredan, who lives in a tent camp in the crowded Delmas district of Port-au-Prince.
About 400,000 people remain in settlement camps comprised of shacks and tarps in the wake of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
In Port-au-Prince, people went to work as usual, but commercial banks closed at noon and some residents took precautions as the sky darkened, rain fell and the wind picked up.
“Just in case this gets very bad — the sky is turning gray — I’m making sure we have enough food in the house,” said 25-year-old Joanne Dorville as she carried home rice, sardines, black beans and cooking oil that she had purchased in a street market.
Haitian authorities and aid workers from the International Organization for Migration and the Haitian Red Cross had planned to evacuate as many as 8,000 people from a tent camp at the edge of the capital on Friday but few accepted. Two school buses that were supposed to shuttle the people to temporary shelters drove away empty.
“If I leave for a shelter, by the time I come back, everything I have will be gone,” said Charles Delizaire, a 39-year-old resident of the settlement named Marassa.
More than a hundred people accepted an offer to stay a few nights in a school that President Michel Martelly toured along with Lamothe, the prime minister. Martelly greeted mothers and their children but after he left people began to leave.
“They dragged me from the camp and brought me here,” 38-year-old Marlene Charles, thirsty and hungry, said about the aid groups. “There’s no way I’m going to spend the night here.” She then walked out.
So far, Isaac itself had caused no reported injuries or deaths, but police in Puerto Rico said a 75-year-old woman died near the capital of San Juan on Wednesday when she fell off a balcony while filling a drum with water in preparation for the storm.
In the Dominican Republic, authorities evacuated people from low-lying areas but, as in Haiti, they encountered resistance. Still, authorities said they evacuated nearly 2,900 people. The majority were transferred to the homes of relatives while about 300 were sent to government shelters.
Local forecasters said they expected the storm to dump up to 12 inches (31 centimeters) of rain through Saturday, causing possible flooding and landslides.
“That’s a lot of water,” said Juan Manuel Mendez, emergency operations director. “The worst is yet to come.”
Two airports in Santo Domingo reopened, although the country’s remaining seven airports remained closed, authorities said.
Commercial airlines, including American Airlines, canceled flights to and from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
Organizers of next week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa said they were working closely with state and federal authorities on monitoring storm as they prepared for the arrival of 70,000 delegates, journalists and protesters, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott said there were no plans to cancel the convention.
Out in the eastern Atlantic, former Tropical Storm Joyce degenerated into a broad low pressure system Friday and posed no threat to land.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)