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Evacuations in Caribbean as fierce Hurricane Matthew looms

| KINGSTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE

KINGSTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE Oct 1 Haiti has began evacuating residents by boat from outlying islands in preparation for Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest storm to cross the Caribbean for years that threatens to wreak widespread damage in the region with flash floods and high winds.

Matthew, with winds at about 150 miles per hour (240 kph), is expected to make landfall as a major storm on Jamaica's southern coast, home to the capital, Kingston, and its only oil refinery. Stormy weather could begin on Sunday.

Simultaneously. the storm is forecast to lash southern Haiti, dumping up to 40 inches (101 cm) of rain there and up to 25 inches (64 cm) in Jamaica, possibly triggering life-threatening landslides and floods, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Albert Moulion, Haiti's interior ministry spokesman, said authorities had started voluntary evacuations of residents of small, exposed sandy islands in the south as a precaution.

"We have already started evacuations," he said. "The national center of emergency operations has been activated."

By early Tuesday, Matthew is due in eastern Cuba, with a path that could take it over the colonial city of Santiago de Cuba and the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo.

The U.S. ordered the mandatory evacuation of approximately 700 spouses and children from the base on Saturday, saying it was airlifting them to a station in Pensacola, Florida. Cuban President Raul Castro visited Santiago de Cuba on Saturday to oversee storm preparations, Cuban TV footage showed.

The ferocity of the storm, the strongest in the Carribbean since Hurricane Felix in 2007, has led to concerns of economic devastation in the poor countries in its path.

"The hurricane will cause an interruption, obviously, in our economic activities here," Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told Reuters in an interview on Saturday, saying that tourism and agriculture could be most affected.

"We have allocated all the resources we can given our fiscal restraints and I think that the country is prepared for the hurricane," Holness said.

Cash-strapped Jamaica has been suffering a long economic slowdown and is under an International Monetary Fund programme to tackle high debt.

In Kingston, residents stocked up on canned foods, water and flashlights in preparation for the storm, while banks and offices boarded up their windows. Fishermen were told not to go to sea.

In MegaMart, a supermarket, Ennis St. Patrice and his wife, Monique, bought big bottles of water.

"We've had these kind of occurrences in the past and it is generally bad, because Jamaica does not have proper infrastructure," said St Patrice, a trade unionist for Jamaica's meteorological office. "In simple rainfall, we have flooding." (Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Gabriel Stargardter; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

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