Hurricane Mathew, the powerful category 4 storm, headed towards Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba on Sunday (2 October) as forecasters said it could eventually reach eastern United States. Haiti has already started evacuating its residents from high-risk areas as the storm could inflict widespread damage with flash floods and heavy winds.

Matthew, the strongest to hit the Caribbean in nearly a decade, was "moving slowly north-northwestward" from the coast of Colombia and Venezuela at a speed of 6 mph (9 km), at (0600 GMT), the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.

The storm will make landfall in Haiti and Jamaica on Monday but residents could be feeling the effects from Sunday. Reports said residents were frantically stocking up supplies to prepare for the storm.

It is expected to dump at least 15 to 25 inches of rain in southern Haiti "with possible isolated maximum amounts of 40 inches". The powerful storm could also bring 10 to 20 inches of rainfall in Eastern Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba.

"We have already started evacuations. The national centre of emergency operations has been activated." Albert Moulion, Haiti's interior ministry spokesperson told Reuters. He added that officials had already started evacuating residents from small, exposed islands in the south.

Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness said: "The hurricane will cause an interruption, obviously, in our economic activities here. We have allocated all the resources we can given our fiscal restraints and I think that the country is prepared for the hurricane."

According to forecasters, the powerful storm could lash eastern Cuba on Tuesday, potentially touching the colonial city of Santiago de Cuba and the US navy base of Guantanamo. There are around 5,500 people living on the base, including 61 men at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

The US navy said around 700 families and spouses will be airlifted to Florida to wait out the hurricane. "The remaining military and civilian personnel will shelter in place and be able to support recovery efforts once safe to do so following the storm's passage," it said in a statement. The storm could reach the Bahamas and mainland United States later in the week.

Matthew was classified as a Category 5 storm, briefly on late Friday. However, the US National Hurricane Center said the wind speeds had dropped from a peak of 160 mph (260 kph) to a still possibly damaging 150 mph (240 kph), making it the strongest Caribbean storm since Hurricane Felix in 2007.

Hurricane Matthew prep
People buy groceries and supplies before the arrival of Hurricane Matthew in Portmore, Jamaica RICHARDO MAKYN/AFP/Getty Images