(BBC) The death toll in Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew – the most powerful Caribbean storm in a decade – has soared to more than 300, officials say.
Some 50 people were reported killed in the town of Roche-a-Bateau alone.
The nearby city of Jeremie saw 80% of its buildings levelled. In Sud province 30,000 homes were destroyed.
The hurricane, now a Category Three storm with sustained winds of 120mph (193km/h), is heading up the coastline of the U.S. state of Florida.
At 06:00 local time (10:00 GMT) Matthew was still off the coast, centred about 25 miles (40km) east of Port Canaveral and moving north-north-west at about 14mph (22km/h), the National Hurricane Center said. It remains unclear whether it will make landfall.
An extreme wind warning has been issued for Cape Canaveral and Port Canaveral, Governor Rick Scott tweeted.
Senator Herve Fourcand from southern Haiti told AFP news agency that more than 300 people had died. An unnamed official quoted by Reuters news agency put the death toll at 339.
Hurricane Matthew has pounded the Bahamas after slicing through Haiti and Cuba.
Trees and power lines were reportedly down in the Bahamas but no fatalities were reported.
Most of the deaths in Haiti were in towns and fishing villages around the southern coast, with many killed by falling trees, flying debris and swollen rivers.
The storm passed directly through the Tiburon peninsula, driving the sea inland and flattening homes with winds of up to 230km/h (145mph) and torrential rain on Monday and Tuesday.
The collapse of an important bridge on Tuesday had left the south-west largely cut off.
Non-governmental organisations said phone coverage and electricity were down and people were running out of food and water.
The BBC’s Tony Brown in south-western Haiti said he had seen people trying to cope with the mass destruction on their own, trying to rebuild from the rubble but without the help of the army or police.
The Red Cross has launched an emergency appeal for US$6.9m “to provide medical, shelter, water and sanitation assistance to 50,000 people”.
The U.S. is sending nine military helicopters to help deliver food and water to the hardest-hit areas.
The country is one of the world’s poorest, with many residents living in flimsy housing in flood-prone areas. Four people also died in the storm in the neighbouring Dominican Republic on Tuesday.
‘WAVES OVER YOUR ROOF’
Meanwhile in the U.S., evacuation orders have been issued for areas covering some three million inhabitants.
Bedraggled tourists leave Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando as it closes (AFP photo)
The storm has so far stayed off the coast, lessening the potential impact to southern Florida, and it remains unclear when, where or if, the hurricane will make landfall.
Nevertheless, rain and high winds lashed the Miami area overnight. Some 300,000 homes and businesses have been left without power in Florida already.
Cape Canaveral has recorded a wind gust of 100mph.
Some areas in the state could see rainfall of up to 15in (38cm), but the main threat appeared to be from seawater surges along the coast right up to South Carolina.
Governor Scott said: “Think about this: 11ft (3.3m) of possible storm surge. And on top of that, waves. So if you are close, you could have the storm surge and waves over your roof.”
Orlando theme parks Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld are shut.
WHY HAITI IS VULNERABLE TO DISASTERS
More than half of Haiti’s city-dwellers live in overcrowded shantytowns that take the full force of any earthquake, hurricane, or disease outbreak. An ongoing cholera epidemic, triggered by the arrival of UN troops after the 2010 earthquake, has killed thousands of people.
Massive deforestation has also led to soil erosion, leaving hillside huts and poorly-built houses in the capital, Port-au-Prince, dangerously exposed. In rural areas, topsoil used for agriculture is often washed away.
Political instability and corruption have been a factor. Without effective government for decades, Haiti currently ranks 163rd out of the 188 countries on the UN Human Development Index. It spends little on storm defences.