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Powerful Hurricane Matthew soaks Colombia, heads for Jamaica

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Kingston: One of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent history weakened a little as it drenched coastal Colombia and roared across the Caribbean on a course that threatened Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba.

Matthew briefly reached the top hurricane classification, Category 5 yesterday, and was the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Felix in 2007.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Matthew’s winds had slipped from a peak of 160 mph (260 kph) to a still-potentially devastating 140 mph (220 kph) and it was expected to near Jamaica and southwestern Haiti early Monday.

The forecast track would carry it across Cuba and into the Bahamas, with an outside chance of a brush with Florida, though that would be several days away.

“It’s too early to rule out what impacts, if any, would occur in the United States and Florida,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman at the Hurricane Center.

As Matthew skimmed past the northern tip of South America there were reports of at least one death – the second attributed to the storm.

Authorities in the region overall breathed a sigh of relief as the storm triggered heavy flooding in towns along the La Guajira peninsula of Colombia, but damage overall was minimal. Some officials were even grateful for the rain after a multi-year drought in the poverty-stricken area.

“Families that evacuated are returning to their homes,” said La Guajira Gov. Jorge Velez. “The dikes and wells filled up, the earth is moist, and this benefits agriculture in an area where it hasn’t rained for five years, benefiting the community.”

Authorities say that at least 27 houses were damaged and two roads were washed out. One person, a 67-year indigenous man, was carried away to his death by a flash flood in an area where it hadn’t rained for four years.

Elsewhere, all across Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, authorities have set up emergency shelters, closed access to beaches and urged residents living near the ocean to move inland in preparation for storm surges that they said will reach their most-intense moment sometime Saturday.

There’s also concern that heavy rain across much of the country this weekend could dampen turnout for a nationwide referendum Sunday on a historic peace accord between the government and leftist rebels.

In Jamaica, high surf began pounding the coast and flooding temporarily closed the road linking the capital to its airport. Carl Ferguson, head of the marine police, said people were starting to heed calls to relocate from small islands and areas near rural waterways.

Residents of the capital, Kingston, crowded supermarkets to buy bottled water, canned food and batteries, and there was already flooding in the coastal town of Port Royal, where officials are urging residents to seek refuge in government shelters once they open up on Sunday.

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