Hurricane Matthew’s howling wind and driving rain pummeled Florida early Friday, starting what’s expected to be a ruinous, dayslong battering of the Southeast coast.
The strongest winds of 192 km/h were just offshore, but Matthew’s wrath still menaced more than 800 kilometres of coastline.
Two million people were warned to flee inland as the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade charged toward Florida. Matthew left more than 280 dead in its wake across the Caribbean.
The number of homes and businesses without power jumped by the hour as the storm edged closer to the coast. More than 430,000 were in the dark by early Friday.
The winds picked up along Vero Beach, midway between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral, stripping away palm fronds, ripping awnings and blowing sand that stung the face. Waves crashed on the beach, and rain came in short bursts.
The storm’s path spared the 4.4 million people in the southerly Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas from its most punishing effects.
As of 8 a.m. ET Friday, the hurricane’s eyewall was just off the coast, roughly 80 kilometres southeast of Daytona Beach and closing in at about 20 km/h, according to the National Hurricane Center. There were reports of waves five metres high.
“This storm’s a monster,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned as Matthew started lashing the state.
But even though the eye was still offshore, Florida was already seeing strong winds.
After Florida, forecasters said Matthew would 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,” Scott warned. “We should expect the same impact in Florida.”
The hurricane had been a potentially catastrophic Category 4 storm, but weakened slightly early Friday to a Category 3. Forecasters said it could dump up to 38 centimetres of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of two-and-a-half metres 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 800-kilometre stretch from South Florida to the Charleston, S.C., area.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, freeing up federal money and personnel to protect lives and property.
Transportation, attraction closures
The Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and the Orlando airport planned to do so as well. 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.
“I never get time off. I’m a little sad,” tourist Amber Klinkel, 25, of Battle Creek, Michigan, lamented at Universal.
Patients were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Thousands of people hunkered down in schools converted to shelters, and inland hotels in places such as Charlotte, North Carolina, reported brisk business.
Hundreds dead in Haiti
At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA no longer has to worry about rolling space shuttles back from the launch pad to the hangar because of hurricanes, since the shuttle fleet is now retired. But the spaceflight company SpaceX was concerned about the storm’s effect on its leased seaside pad.
The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the U.S. was Wilma in October 2005. It sliced across Florida, killing five people and causing an estimated $ 21 billion US in damage.
Some 470 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighbourhoods earlier in the week.
Bodies have started to appear as waters recede in some areas two days after Matthew smashed concrete walls, flattened palm trees and tore roofs off homes.
Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic.
In the Bahamas, authorities reported many downed trees and power lines but no immediate deaths.