Hurricane Matthew narrowed its aim on Florida Tuesday as the fierce Category 4 storm continued its brutal march across the Caribbean, leaving a wake of misery in Haiti on its way to Cuba.
With the storm’s forecast track shifting west through the day, National Hurricane Center forecasters warned that much of the state’s Atlantic coast could begin to feel Matthew’s bruising winds in as little as two days. The storm, blamed for nine deaths so far, is expected to track perilously close to a state that hasn’t taken a direct hit from a major storm in more than a decade — or even make landfall along the coast.
“You need to take this very seriously today and tomorrow,” National Hurricane Center Direct Rick Knabb said Tuesday morning. “The impacts are going to happen no matter what.”
Tuesday evening, forecasters widened a hurricane watch to include Golden Beach, extending it north to Central Florida’s coast as the forecast track shifted farther west. A tropical storm watch extended from the middle Keys north to Lake Okeechobee.
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the storm was located about 30 miles south, southwest of the eastern end of Cuba and moving about 9 mph. Cuban authorities reported tropical storm force winds already hitting the island. Sustained winds slowed slightly to 140 mph, with hurricane force winds spread across 90 miles, National Hurricane Center forecasters said.
Matthew will likely near the Central Bahamas tonight and move north-northwest by Wednesday, followed by a northwest turn Wednesday night. A steering ridge is expected to keep turning the storm toward Florida.
As Matthew nears Florida, it is likely to remain a dangerous Category 3 or 4 storm. The last major storm to strike South Florida was Wilma, which landed just south of Marco Island in 2005.
“It will take it a day or so to re-energize, but I think it’s likely to be a four again by Thursday morning when it’s getting near Florida,” Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters said.
No evacuation plans have yet been announced for Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a press briefing. But he urged residents to prepare for the storm now, stocking up on water, batteries and supplies and securing homes and businesses. School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday after-school activities would be canceled. A decision on whether to cancel classes Thursday will be made later today.
“If we do order evacuations, we will open shelters up in Miami-Dade County that can take care of you,” Gimenez said. To see a list of shelters, go to miamidade.gov/hurricane.
Gov. Rick Scott, who declared a state of emergency Monday, flew across the state, starting in Marathon Tuesday morning, and warned residents living along the I-95 corridor to ready for “direct impacts” from the storm that may include tornadoes, heavy rain, high winds and beach erosion.
“We can rebuild your home, we can rebuild your business. We can’t rebuild your life,” Scott said at a Daytona Beach news conference.
Matthew, which arrives just a month after Hurricane Hermine plowed across the Panhandle, is expected to near South Florida in the next two days. A three-day forecast Tuesday tracked the storm west of Great Abaco by Thursday afternoon, putting the Broward coast well within the 185-mile wind field for tropical storm force winds extending from Matthew’s center.
Such a close brush could bring punishing floods, storm surge and beach erosion, causing widespread damage on the state’s densely developed east coast. Miami Beach, which routinely floods during high tide, is due to get hit with a seasonal king tides later this month. On Thursday, high tide is forecast for 2.7 feet.
“It’s not just a wind event. Heavy rainfall and inland flooding will be more of a hazard the closer this gets,” Knabb said.
Whether the track holds remains to be seen. The storm is now being influenced by the Bermuda High, a seasonal weather pattern anchored east of the state with a clockwise flow, Masters said. But so close to the coast, even a slight change in its path can have huge consequences.
“You have a completely different set of lands impacted,” he said.
In their 5 p.m. advisory, forecasters warned that “only a small deviation of the track to the left of the NHC forecast could bring the core of a major hurricane onshore.”
In 2004, Hurricane Charlie was predicted to hit Tampa as a Cat 2 storm five hours before landfall. Within three hours, it jumped to a Cat 4 and hit Port Charlotte, nearly a 100 miles to the south, catching residents by surprise even though the area fell under the forecast cone. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew weakened after passing over the Bahamas and within just a few hours rapidly recovered to hit Homestead with 145 mph winds.
Major changes, either in track or intensity, can also make it harder for models to digest data, adding uncertainty to the forecast. Matthew’s unusual southerly path, with a sharp turn across the Caribbean, also gives forecasters little historical information to rely on. Storms so far south typically get caught in tradewinds that push them west. In Matthew’s case, a strong low pressure system — rare but sometimes found in late season storms — pulled it northward, Masters said.
“It’s unusual to see them move at right angles to that flow,” he said.
The only two storms on record that followed a similar path were Hurricane Hazel, which killed 400 people in Haiti in 1954, and Hurricane Sandy, which formed off the coast of Nicaragua in late October 2012 and pushed nearly nonstop north, crossing Jamaica and eastern Cuba, before coming ashore near Atlantic City, New Jersey.
As Florida braces, Haiti continued to struggle with damage from winds, flooding and mudslides that destroyed homes, washed away roads and killed livestock.
The center crossed southwestern Haiti about 7 a.m., becoming the first major hurricane to strike the island in 50 years. By 11 a.m., the Rouyonne River topped its banks and washed out a highway west of Port-Au-Prince. A bridge also washed out north of Port-Au-Prince. Widespread flooding and dangerous mudslides are expected across the island where more than 55,000 still live in tents following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.
Adassa Romilus, a spokeswoman for Heifer International, a charity that works with 30,000 farming families in Haiti, said livestock placed in shelters for protection had been killed.
“The shelters couldn’t withstand the force of the hurricane,” she said.
Officials reported that roughly 400 homes had been destroyed, and at least one person killed.
“There is major destruction right now,” said Fidèle Nicolas, a civil protection coordinator in the Nippes department in southwestern Haiti. “Lots of rooftops are gone, but fatalities reported so far have been few.”
In the Dominican Republic, three children were killed when the walls to their house collapsed in Santo Domingo, authorities said. An elderly resident in a neighboring town was also killed.
A tropical storm watch now covers much of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, extending from the Seven Mile Bridge north to Golden Beach. A hurricane watch stretched from the tony beach town to Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, and up to the Brevard and Volusia county line in Central Florida.
While Monroe County is not expected to get drenching rains and no evacuations have been ordered, county officials said residents and visitors still need to stay alert.
“We are only 48 hours out and it still is a monster storm,” county administrator Roman Gastesi said in a statement, warning that those in the upper Keys need to pay particular attention.
Across the Caribbean, hurricane warnings remained in effect for Haiti, the eastern tip of Cuba to Las Tunas, and the Bahamas. Tropical storm conditions will likely spread across the northern parts of Haiti today, eastern Cuba later today and the southeastern Bahamas later today. Heavy rains and winds are expected to begin lashing the central and northwestern Bahamas Tuesday night and Wednesday.
With Florida likely to get drenched on the heels of a record wet winter, water managers also began lowering some 2,000 miles of canals and waterways over the weekend, said Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District.
"If you don't and the canals are at a higher level and all the sudden you get hit with a lot of rainfall, the canals can't hold it," he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages water levels in Lake Okeechobee to protect its aging dike, will release information later Tuesday about preparations, a spokeswoman said. Flushing from the lake over the winter triggered by record-breaking rain left the Treasure Coast slimed with toxic algae, infuriating residents who for years have complained about polluted water released to protect the dike.
Forecasters are also watching two other storms in the Atlantic. A wave several hundred miles east of the Windward Islands moving west at 10 to 15 mph could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the islands in the next couple of days. Another wave about 520 miles northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico became Tropical Storm Nicole Tuesday morning. Sustained winds reached 50 mph as the storm headed northwest at 10 mph toward Bermuda. Forecasters say it will likely weaken.
Staff writer David Smiley and the Associated Press contributed to this report.