Families debate whether to flee ahead of 'potentially disastrous' Hurricane Matthew

George Scholl and his wife, Anne, had the debate many couples had in Florida today: stay or go? In the end, George won, so they boarded up their house in West Palm Beach and decided to head for safer ground.

“There was a lot of talk, a lot of crying and arguing back and forth,” he said Thursday as they loaded their three cats into their car for the drive to Tampa.

Tampa is tucked along the state’s Gulf Coast, away from the east coast that’s bracing for the brunt of Hurricane Matthew.

The hurricane, which Reuters says left hundreds dead in Haiti and pounded the Bahamas, could be “potentially disastrous” in parts of Florida, the U.S. National Hurricane Centre warned Thursday afternoon.

By Thursday evening, the centre said tropical storm conditions were “spreading onto the Florida east coast.”

In West Palm Beach, a coastal community of about 100,000, residents were being urged to leave. 

The county sheriff’s office was active on Twitter as the day went on, letting people know where shelters were open and reminding people to seek shelter — and that evacuation was “strongly recommended.”

Scholl has lived through storms in Florida before, but nothing like what Matthew is expected to bring. With winds in excess of 200 km/h and storm surges possibly two metres high, he didn’t want to risk being in his almost 80-year-old house.

“I’d rather be away and come back to a nice house, than be here and be with a house that could be demolished around us,” he said.

Fleeing the storm

Anna Scholl wasn’t as sure as her husband about leaving, but with officials warning of roaring winds and strong storm surges, they made the call to go. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

His home is just a few blocks from the edge of one of the dozens of evacuation zones up and down Florida’s Atlantic coast.

The homes of almost two million people are under an evacuation order from Florida up to South Carolina, and officials are busy repeating the calls they’ve been making for days.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has activated the National Guard and asked the president to send federal resources to the southern state, including pumps and generators. 

“If you need to evacuate and you haven’t, evacuate. This storm will kill you,” Scott said at an afternoon briefing.

At midday Thursday, not far from the Scholls’ home, there was still a line at the Havana Cuban restaurant’s takeout window. Inside, manager Ricky Hussey and his staff worked feverishly.

“Our plan is to feed as many people as we can, stay open as long as we can,” he said, noting they’ve got three generators ready to power up the minute the storm passes.

While Hussey tries to ride it out, hundreds of others checked into the Red Cross shelter at Forest Hill High School. Among them, Alexis Castro, his wife, five-year-old son and eight-month-old daughter.

Castro remembers Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and doesn’t want to take any chances with his young family.

“You never take a chance like that, especially if you have a family, because you never know when [the storm] is going to come, or maybe it’s going to get stronger. You don’t want to take a chance for nothing.”

The storm was a Category 4 hurricane Thursday evening, but forecasters noted that some changes in intensity were likely as it swirled toward the Florida coast.

state-run website lists evacuation orders by area, shelter information and emergency contact details. 

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