Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, strengthened as it barreled toward the southeastern United States on Thursday after killing at least 339 people, mostly in Haiti, including dozens in one coastal town that authorities and rescue workers were only beginning to reach days after the powerful storm.
Currently Category 4, Hurricane Matthew is now on track to be a Category 3 storm – classified as winds of 111-129 mph – by the time it makes landfall in central Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center’s latest advisory.
Two million people across the Southeast were warned to flee inland. It was the most powerful storm to threaten the US Atlantic coast in more than a decade, and had already left more than 330 dead in its wake across the Caribbean. “This storm’s a monster,” Gov. Rick Scott warned as it started lashing the state with periodic heavy rains and squalls around nightfall. He added: “I’m going to pray for everybody’s safety.”
As it moved north in the evening, Matthew stayed about 100 miles or more off South Florida, sparing the 4.4 million people in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas from its most punishing effects. By Thursday night, more than 60,000 homes and businesses were without power. Streets in Vero Beach were partially covered with water, and hotel guests in Orlando were told to stay inside, though a few sneaked out to smoke or watch the rain.
“If you’re reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the people who have been killed,” Scott said at a news conference on Thursday. “Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast and we’re going to have hurricane-force winds.”
Forecasters said it would then probably hug the coast of Georgia and South Carolina over the weekend before veering out to sea _ perhaps even looping back toward Florida in the middle of next week as a tropical storm.
Millions of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were told to evacuate their homes, and interstate highways were turned into one-way routes to speed the exodus. Florida alone accounted for about 1.5 million of those told to clear out.
“The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida,” the governor warned.
Many boarded up their homes and businesses and left them to the mercy of the storm.
“We’re not going to take any chances on this one,” said Daniel Myras, who struggled to find enough plywood to protect his restaurant, the Cruisin Cafe, two blocks from the Daytona Beach boardwalk.
He added: “A lot of people here, they laugh, and say they’ve been through storms before and they’re not worried. But I think this is the one that’s going to give us a wake-up call.”
The hurricane picked up wind speed as it closed in, growing from a possibly devastating Category 3 storm to a potentially catastrophic Category 4. Forecasters said it could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more.
They said the major threat to the Southeast would not be the winds _ which newer buildings can withstand _ but the massive surge of seawater that could wash over coastal communities along a 500-mile stretch from South Florida to the Charleston, South Carolina, area.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Florida and South Carolina, freeing up federal money and personnel to protect lives and property.
The Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and the Orlando airport planned to do so as well. The Palm Beach International Airport reported a wind gust of 50 mph with the center of the storm 70 miles offshore, the National Hurricane Center said. Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights Thursday and Friday, many of them in or out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Amtrak suspended train service between Miami and New York, and cruise lines rerouted ships to avoid the storm, which in some cases will mean more days at sea.
Orlando’s world-famous theme parks _ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld _ all closed.