Hurricane warnings were issued along the east coast of Florida late Tuesday as deadly and dangerous Hurricane Matthew left the Caribbean with a battered Haiti and Cuba in its wake.
At 5 a.m. Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said Matthew’s sustained winds dipped to 125 mph, making it a Category 3 storm, but that all expectations were for Matthew to regain Category 4 status. Matthew was located about 65 miles northwest of the eastern tip of Cuba and was moving north at about 10 mph.
A hurricane watch has been extended north to Florida's Fernandina Beach. A storm surge has begun to spread over the Bahamas.
Just a few hours earlier, the National Hurricane Center upgraded hurricane watches issued earlier in the day to warnings from Golden Beach to Sebastian Inlet, a change indicating that fierce winds from the storm could hit the coast within 36 hours, even if the storm remains off shore. Much of the Florida Keys and Miami-Dade County were placed under tropical storm warnings.
The storm, blamed for nine deaths so far, weakened a bit after making landfall in Cuba. But forecasters expected it to regain some strength as it churns through the Bahamas and tracks perilously close to a state that hasn’t taken a direct hit from a major storm in more than a decade — and could potentially make landfall somewhere along the coast.
“You need to take this very seriously [Tuesday] and [Wednesday],” National Hurricane Center Direct Rick Knabb said Tuesday morning. “The impacts are going to happen no matter what.”
Forecasters said Matthew is expected to begin turning toward the north-northwest over the next 12 hours then turn to the northwest as it crosses the Bahamas, skirting along the South Florida coast — possibly making landfall somewhere along the state’s Atlantic coast. In three days, Matthew should begin to turn back to the north.
Matthew is expected to move through the Bahamas Thursday and near Florida Thursday night.
As Matthew pushes toward 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 news 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 suspended. A decision on whether to cancel classes was not made. Broward will close schools Thursday and Friday.
“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 on Tuesday morning, and warned residents living along the I-95 corridor to ready for “direct impacts” from the storm that might include tornadoes, heavy rain, high winds and beach erosion.
With a 175-mile wind field for tropical storm force winds extending from Matthew’s center, even a close brush from Matthew 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 with the storm skirting 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 one advisory Tuesday, 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 major road north of Port-Au-Prince. A bridge also collapsed south of the port city. Widespread flooding and dangerous mudslides are expected across the island where more than 61,000 still live in tents following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 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 told The Associated Press.
Authorities said many homes have been destroyed but have not tallied the damage. At least two deaths have so far been confirmed.
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.
While Monroe County was not expected to get drenching rains and no evacuations have been ordered, county officials said residents and visitors in the Keys 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. Late Tuesday, fierce winds continued to pound Haiti and were likely occurring over eastern Cuba, forecasters said. Strong hurricane winds, heavy rain and dangerous storm surge as high as 15 feet are expected to spread across the Bahamas on Wednesday.
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 writers David Smiley and Mimi Whitefield, along with the Associated Press, contributed to this report.