Hurricane Matthew gained new fury as it hammered the central Bahamas early Thursday, and forecasters said the “extremely dangerous” storm strengthened as it approached Florida’s heavily populated Atlantic coast.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 11 a.m. ET Matthew had regained its earlier status as a Category 4 hurricane, packing sustained winds of 225 km/h. Its centre was about 250 kilometres southeast of Miami, headed for the coast at 19 km/h.
As the threat from the major hurricane rose along the Southeast seacoast, the centre extended a hurricane warning area on a large swath of Florida’s east coast farther up to Altamaha Sound in Georgia. And it said a newly expanded hurricane watch area would now reach from the Altamaha Sound to the South Santee River in South Carolina.
‘Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.’ — Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Matthew is the most powerful to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade.
In Florida, a combination of mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders have been issued — spanning the coast from the state’s southern tip to the border with Georgia, affecting about 1.5 million people.
The storm’s centre is forecast to near the Florida coast starting Thursday night. It could either make landfall or travel north, skirting the Florida coast.
Either way, forecasters say it will come close enough to wreak havoc along the lower part of the East Coast, dumping up to 38 centimetres in rain in some spots. Storm surge of 1.5 metres to 2.4 metres was expected along the coast from central Florida into Georgia.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott did not mince words during a morning news conference.
“Leave now … there is no excuse not to leave,” he said. “Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.”
‘I’m not anticipating that much damage.’ — Cape Canaveral resident John Long
“Do not surf. Do not go on the beach,” he added. “This storm will kill you.”
Scott said he has called in another 1,000 members of the National Guard, bringing the state’s total to 2,500, and suspended all tolls on Florida highways.
Fort Lauderdale International Airport said it would close at 10:30 a.m. ET while other major airports — in Miami, Palm Beach, Orlando and Jacksonville — warned of possible disruptions.
And yet, the major theme parks in Orlando remained open.
Walt Disney World cancelled a special Halloween-themed event, but otherwise, according to the Disney website, officials continue to monitor the storm.
Warnings in Georgia, Carolinas
Similar warnings were issued in Georgia and the Carolinas, where the storm is expected to arrive by the weekend. The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the United States was Wilma in October 2005. It made landfall with 193 km/h winds in southwest Florida, killing five people as it slashed across the state.
In total, evacuation orders affecting some 2.5 million people have been issued in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
None of this mattered to John Long, who lives in the Florida town of Cape Canaveral.
“The hype is going to be worse than the actual storm. I feel I can do quite well,” said Long, who owns a bike shop and plans to ride out the storm with his cat in his nine-metre recreational vehicle about one kilometre from the ocean. He has lived in the Space Coast area for three decades.
“There’s always tremendous buildup and then it’s no stronger than an afternoon thunderstorm. I’m not anticipating that much damage,” he said Wednesday.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley reversed the lanes of Interstate 26 for the first time on Wednesday so that all lanes of traffic were headed west and out of Charleston. Plans to reverse the lanes were put in place after hours-long traffic jams during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Haley planned to call for more evacuations Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state.
On Tybee Island, home to Georgia’s largest public beach, Loren Kook was loading up his pickup truck with suitcases and a computer late Wednesday afternoon. He and his wife were trying to decide whether to board up their windows overlooking the marsh grasses of Horsepen Creek before hitting the road to metro Atlanta.
“It seems like a lot of the longtime residents are staying,” said Kook, who moved to the coast four years ago. “I’ve never sat through a Category Whatever. I’ll watch it on TV.”
Yet despite evacuation orders and dire warnings, Robert and Georgette Tyler said they were staying put in their rental home in Cape Canaveral, undeterred that Matthew might soon be pounding at their door.
Taking a break from putting plywood on windows, Robert Tyler said he feared getting stuck in traffic and that it was too much trouble to pack up his motorcycles and firearms. He has two generators, almost 200 litres of fuel and enough food and water for a week. Plus, he is a handyman and his phone will be ringing off the hook once the storm passes.
“It’s part of Florida life I guess, especially on the coast,” he said.