KINGSTON, Jamaica — Hurricane Matthew weakened slightly on Saturday as it headed toward Jamaica and Cuba, but with winds reaching 155 mph, forecasters said the storm was still powerful enough to wreck homes as islanders braced for its arrival.
Matthew, the strongest hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean since Felix in 2007, was forecast to make landfall as a major storm on Monday on Jamaica’s southern coast, home to the country’s capital, Kingston, and its only oil refinery. It also could affect tourist destinations such as Montego Bay in the north.
With Matthew about 420 miles southeast of Kingston, the U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded its designation to a Category 4, from the top Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, but Jamaican authorities said they were taking all possible precautions.
“The government is on high alert,” said Robert Morgan, director of communications at the prime minister’s office.
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“We hope that the hurricane does not hit us, but if it does hit us, we are trying our very best to ensure that we are in the best possible place,” he said.
Disaster coordinators, police and troops are on standby and shelters are being opened across the island, Morgan said.
The center of the storm will move away from the Guajira Peninsula early on Saturday, across the central Caribbean Sea on Saturday and approach Jamaica late on Sunday, the NHC said.
Despite sunny weather and only a few scattered clouds, many Kingstonians stocked up on water and food on Friday.
Jamaica was hard hit by hurricane Gilbert in 1988, and the last major hurricane in the region was Sandy, in 2012.
Matthew could be the most powerful storm to cross the island since records began, meteorologist Eric Holthaus said on Twitter.
Tenaj Lewis, 41, a doctor who was stocking up with groceries in Kingston on Friday, said Jamaica was much better-prepared for hurricanes than when Gilbert struck.
“The country literally shut down for months,” she said.
Since then, hurricanes have brought a few days of power outages but have not been nearly as destructive and many Jamaicans were unflustered.
Peter Silvera, who owns the Longboarder Bar & Grill in the Roselle, a small hamlet on the southeastern coast of the island, said he was surfing all morning.
“This is when we get the best waves,” he said, but he added he would be bringing in his outdoor tables and “battening down the hatches” to ride out the storm.
Southwest Airlines warned that flights to Montego Bay might be disrupted and said customers could reschedule.
Matthew also is forecast to skim past the southern coast of Haiti on Monday and officials said preparation efforts were focused in the south.
“We will prepare with drinking water for the patients, with medication, with generators for electricity (and) vehicles to go look for people at their homes,” said Yves Domercant, the head of the public hospital in Les Cayes in the south.
In Cuba, which has a strong record of protecting residents when storms strike, people in the eastern coastal city of Santiago de Cuba said they were following the news closely, although the sky was still blue.
“We don’t know yet exactly where it will go, so we’re still waiting to see,” said Marieta Gomez, owner of Hostal Marieta. “We Cubans are well prepared.”