MIAMI, Nov 4 – Tomas regained tropical storm strength as it barreled toward Haiti, threatening the already battered Caribbean nation with a direct hit.
A hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning were in effect for Haiti, with tropical storm watches issued for parts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic — which shares Hispaniola island with Haiti — the Bahamas and Jamaica.
The eye of the storm, which lashed Barbados and left more than a dozen dead in Saint Lucia as a hurricane over the weekend, was expected to approach Haiti on Friday.
Tomas is forecast to dump up to 38 centimeters (15 inches) of rain over some areas in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in a statement.
"These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides over mountainous terrain," it added.
It would be grim news for Haiti, with the storm threatening hundreds of thousands of people living in squalid tent camps since a devastating earthquake in January and as the ravaged nation frantically seeks to overcome a cholera epidemic.
At 0000 GMT, Tomas\’s winds were clocked at 75 kilometers (45 miles) per hour, said the Miami-based NHC, warning the storm would strengthen further over the next two days.
"Tomas could be approaching hurricane strength as the center nears Haiti," it added.
The storm was about 485 kilometers (300 miles) southwest of Port-au-Prince and 385 kilometers (240 miles) south-southeast of Kingston. It was moving in a north-northwesterly direction at nine kilometers (six miles) per hour, and was expected to take a turn toward the north and north-northeast.
The death toll in Saint Lucia, which was mauled on Saturday by the storm, rose Wednesday to 14 dead with the recovery of two more bodies.
French helicopters and a British ship were helping deliver supplies to some of the worst hit areas of the island.
The US State Department said the storm inflicted "significant damage" in Saint Lucia, as well as in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
"There are no reports of US citizens killed or seriously injured in the storm or its aftermath," the department said in a travel advisory.
"However, major roads and bridges on the islands are closed due to landslides and flooding, making transportation around the island extremely difficult or impossible.
"Cell phone towers are down, resulting in limited communication, and some areas do not have electricity or water," it said.
The island\’s two airports were open but operating at limited capacity, it said.
As Haiti prepared to evacuate tens of thousands ahead of the storm, US naval commanders ordered the USS Iwo Jima to steam toward Haiti with humanitarian aid.
The amphibious ship is equipped with 10 helicopters and a crew of 1,600, including medical and engineering teams ready to assist in relief efforts after the storm strikes, the US Navy said in a statement.
Haiti is also struggling with a cholera epidemic that is spreading in unsanitary camps for people still homeless in the wake of the nearly year-old quake. The epidemic has claimed 442 lives so far, with a total of 6,742 cases.