Matthew, the first major hurricane threatening a direct hit on the United States in more than 10 years, lashed Florida on Friday with heavy rains and winds after killing at least 339 people in Haiti on its destructive march north through the Caribbean.
Although the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 3 storm as it approached the U.S. mainland, winds gusts of up to 70 miles per hour (113 kph) and heavy downpours were still reported across coastal communities in Florida, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.
“We are just bracing and the winds are picking up,” Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry told CNN early on Friday. “A great number of our residents have taken heed to our warnings and we are certainly concerned about those that have not.”
More than 140,000 Florida households were without power, according to Governor Rick Scott. In West Palm Beach, once lit street lights and houses went dark and Interstate 95 was empty as the storm rolled through the community of 100,000 people.
Hurricane Matthew was carrying extremely dangerous winds of 120 mph (195 kph) after pounding the northwestern part of the Bahamas en route to Florida’s Atlantic coast earlier, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Matthew’s winds had dropped on Thursday night and into Friday morning, downgrading it to a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, where it could either plow inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday night, the Miami-based center said.
Few storms with winds as powerful as Matthew’s have struck Florida, and the NHC warned of “potentially disastrous impacts.”
The U.S. National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.
Hurricane conditions were expected in parts of Florida on Friday and a dangerous storm surge was expected to reach up to 11 feet (3.35 meters) along the Florida coast, Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the Miami-based NHC, said on CNN.
“What we know is that most of the lives lost in hurricanes is due to storm surge,” he said.
Some 339 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighborhoods earlier in the week. Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic, which neighbors Haiti.
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas were still unclear as the storm passed near the capital, Nassau, on Thursday and then out over the western end of Grand Bahama Island.
It was too soon to predict where Matthew might do the most damage in the United States, but the NHC’s hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), to make landfall on U.S. shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Jeff Masters, a veteran hurricane expert, said on his Weather Underground website (www.wunderground.com) that Matthew’s wind threat was especially serious at Cape Canaveral, which juts into the Atlantic off central Florida.
“If Matthew does make landfall along the Florida coast, this would be the most likely spot for it. Billions of dollars of facilities and equipment are at risk at Kennedy Space Center and nearby bases, which have never before experienced a major hurricane,” Masters wrote.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force, which operate the nation’s primary space launch site at Cape Canaveral, have already taken steps to safeguard personnel and equipment.
A team of 116 employees was bunkered down inside Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Control Center to ride out the hurricane.
“We’ve had some close calls, but as far as I know it’s the first time we’ve had the threat of a direct hit,” NASA spokesman George Diller said by email from the hurricane bunker.
Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed, and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached early on Thursday.
Scott warned there could be “catastrophic” damage if Matthew slammed directly into the state and urged some 1.5 million people there to evacuate.
“If you’re reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the people … already killed,” Scott said at a news conference. “Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast.”
Scott, who activated several thousand National Guard troops to help deal with the storm, warned that millions of people were likely to be left without power.
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened shelters for evacuees. As of Thursday morning, more than 3,000 people were being housed in 60 shelters in Florida, Scott said. (Reuters)