Heavy winds pummel Haiti as Tomas approaches
Haitians are told to seek sturdy shelter
The National Hurricane Center says the storm is strengthening
Heavy rains are the "most significant threat" from the storm, the center says
(CNN) -- Tropical Storm Tomas could become a hurricane Friday as it passes Haiti and eastern Cuba, forecasters said.
Tropical storm-force winds had already began to pummel Haiti's southwestern coast Thursday night, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.
As of 11 p.m. ET Thursday, the storm's center was about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 230 miles (370 kilometers) west-southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the hurricane center said.
Tomas was strengthening as it moved north-northeast at 9 mph (15 kph), and the storm could pick up speed as it moves toward the coast, forecasters said.
"Regardless of the exact track and intensity of Tomas, the most significant threat from this tropical cyclone will be heavy rainfall, which could produce flash flooding and life-threatening mudslides over Haiti and the Dominican Republic during the next couple of days," the hurricane center said in an 11 p.m. advisory.
Rain associated with Tropical Storm Tomas had already started falling on Haiti on Thursday afternoon as aid agencies scrambled to move as many people as possible into storm shelters.
The storm -- even if it does not regain hurricane strength -- could deal a disastrous blow to a nation still struggling to its feet after a devastating January earthquake. It showed signs Thursday night of becoming better organized, the hurricane center said.
"People are already dislocated," said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which is moving about 2,000 people from the Corail Cesselesse tent camp into a former church.
The group is working "as fast as we can," he said Thursday.
"We don't have anywhere to move any of the people in the camps that we manage directly other than Corail," Deb Ingersoll of the American Refugee Committee said of the Corail Cesselesse camp. The committee serves about 100,000 people in three other camps, she said.
Although her organization is helping disseminate information and encourage people to leave, "to be honest, I'm not sure many of them will," she said. "They're very entrenched here," and many worry about losing their possessions.
"They're looking at us like we're crazy for telling them they should leave," Ingersoll said. "They don't seem to think this is an event. ... Aid workers are far more worried than they are."
She said group members are dismantling tents in the center of camp to prevent them from becoming projectiles in the wind and encouraging residents to find family or friends who still have homes to stay with. Videos of relocations on the International Organization for Migration's website show pickups piled precariously with mattresses and people.
Tomas is forecast to dump 5 to 10 inches of rain on Haiti, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches in some areas -- amounts that could trigger flooding and landslides. In addition, a storm surge could raise water levels by as much as 1 to 3 feet above normal tide levels in the warning area in areas of onshore winds, accompanied by "large and destructive waves," said the hurricane center.
"Any amount of rain is dangerous here," Ingersoll said, noting that many residents are housed in tents that have experienced sun, rain and wind for 11 months and are "not very well secured."
The government has been advising Haitians to seek sturdy shelter since Wednesday, Doyle said. Humanitarian organizations are doing what they can. But with an estimated 1.3 million Haitians left homeless by the January 12 earthquake, the task before them is enormous.
"For most [internally displaced persons] and those living in communities vulnerable to flooding, there are few good options," the International Organization for Migration says on its website. Winds associated with Tomas, if it re-intensifies into a hurricane, could reach 100 mph.
Aid sits as cholera spreads in Haiti Even before the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Americas, with about 80 percent of its residents living in poverty, according to the CIA World Factbook. As it grappled with rebuilding, a cholera outbreak occurred, with a current death toll of nearly 450 people.
"Even if Tomas only brushes Haiti, it may exacerbate the epidemic, facilitating the spread of the disease into and throughout metropolitan Port-au-Prince, where a third of the population remains homeless and in camps," the International Organization for Migration said.
But many structures that would usually be used for storm shelters -- schools and hospitals -- are no longer standing. And many of Haiti's homeless have no options. "Clearly, there's not enough [structures]," Ingersoll said.
Tomas was once was a Category 2 hurricane and then weakened to a tropical depression before re-intensifying.
Forecast maps show that Tomas could strengthen to a hurricane as it approaches Cuba and Haiti Friday.
"On the forecast track, the center will pass near eastern Jamaica or western Haiti tonight and early Friday, near or over extreme eastern Cuba Friday afternoon and near or over the southeastern Bahamas" Friday night, the hurricane center said Thursday night.
Tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 140 miles (220 kilometers) from Tomas' center.