Reuters/Les Cayes, Haiti
* Strongest Caribbean storm in nine years
* Due to pound western tip of Haiti early Tuesday
* Haiti already hit by poverty, quake, cholera
Haitians living in vulnerable coastal shacks frantically sought shelter as the strongest Caribbean storm in nine years, Hurricane Matthew, closed in on the southwestern peninsula, sending storm surges, wind and rain into seaside towns.
Matthew, a violent Category 4 storm packing 145 mile-per-hour (230 kph) winds, was due to pound the western tip of Haiti early on Tuesday, the US National Hurricane Center said.
"Life-threatening rain, wind and storm surges" had begun to spread over parts of the country as Matthew approached, the center said in a 5 am EDT Tuesday advisory.
The outer bands of the cyclone had already reached the area late on Monday, flooding dozens of houses in the town of Les Anglais when the ocean rose, the local mayor said. In the town of Les Cayes on the southern coast, the wind bent trees and the power went out.
"We have gusts of wind hitting the whole area and the people have fled to a shelter," said Les Anglais mayor Jean-Claude Despierre. In Tiburon, another town nearby, the mayor said people who had been reluctant to leave their homes also fled when the sea rose.
"Everyone is trying to find a safe place to protect themselves, the situation is very difficult," mayor Remiza Denize said, describing large waves hitting the town.
The storm is forecast to spread hurricane-force winds and up to three feet of rain across denuded hills prone to flash floods and mudslides, threatening villages as well as shanty towns in the capital Port-au-Prince.
Children, prisoners moved
"This is the most vulnerable suburb in the area. Here people are going about organising things, we know that the hurricane is coming," said Afou, a volunteer at a children's home made of tin sheeting on the rubbish-strewn seashore of Haiti's Cite Soleil slum in the capital.
"If things are bad then we will come together," said Afou, who only gave his first name. Later, civil protection authorities said 130 children were evacuated by bus from another orphanage in the slum to a high school in the capital.
The Mayor of Cite Soleil, Frederic Hislain, said 150,000 people whose homes were threatened needed to be bused to safer places, but accepted that many people would not want to leave. Poor Haitians are often loath to leave home in the face of storms, fearing their few belongings will be stolen.
The cyclone comes at a bad time for Haiti, where tens of thousands of people still live in tents after a 2010 earthquake that killed upwards of 200,000 people.
Cholera introduced by UN peacekeepers is expected to rise in the October rainy season, and the country was due to hold a long-delayed presidential election on October 9.
The office of Interim President Jocelerme Privert said there was no change to the election date.
On the north coast, about 300 detainees were transferred from their prison near the sea in the town of Jeremie, the interior ministry said.
Matthew is forecast to sweep over Cuba to the Bahamas on Tuesday and possibly reach Florida by Thursday as a major hurricane, though weaker than at present. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Florida on Monday, designating resources for evacuations and shelters and putting the National Guard on standby.
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