As it plowed up the coast, Hurricane Matthew largely spared South Florida on Thursday but cut a razor-thin path that threatened to make history: the first major hurricane on record to strike Central Florida’s east coast.
A small jog north largely kept Miami-Dade and Broward counties just outside Matthew’s worst winds. But just to the north, the rest of the state’s Atlantic coast faced much worse — anything from a damaging sideswipe to a potentially catastrophic direct hit.
On its projected path, the lethal Category 4 storm — already blamed for killing at least 108 people in Haiti, a death toll that might rise to 283 or higher as bodies are counted — could rake hundreds of miles of the coast from Port St. Lucie to Jacksonville. The large and powerful storm could drive flooding ocean waters into coastal communities and cause billions in damage — even if its central core never pushes ashore.
“A lot of communities are going to be underwater if predictions are correct,” said Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach. “You’re going to see a very damaging storm in the next few days.”
At 11 p.m., the storm was located southeast of Cape Canaveral, about 125 miles offshore, moving northwest at 13 mph. National Hurricane Center forecasters reported sustained winds had slowed to 130 mph, and expected the storm to weaken gradually Friday and Saturday. In addition to winds, forecasters said the storm might also churn up dangerous storm surges, rising 7 to 11 feet from Sebastian Inlet north to the state border over the next 36 hours. Hurricane force winds could reach the state late Thursday or early Friday, they said, with Georgia and South Carolina facing a similar pounding in coming days.
Forecasters also downgraded a hurricane warning for Broward and parts of Palm Beach counties to a tropical storm warning and suspended a tropical storm warning for the Florida Keys.
South Florida escaped much of Matthew’s fury after the storm took an unexpected turn near Andros Island earlier in the day that moved it farther north and east, said NHC hurricane specialist Jack Bevin.
“This little twist did keep the center of the hurricane further way from South Florida and that has so far reduced the amount of wind and rain,” he said.
Still, more than 95,000 people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties were without power at 1 a.m. Friday, with the majority in Palm Beach County, according to Florida Power & Light.
As the storm approached the coast overnight, its exact track will make all the difference, Bevin said. Even a slight wobble could lead to a record-breaking hit for Central Florida’s east coast.
“Any sort of shift to the left would bring the center onto the coast,” he said.
Since it formed near the lesser Antilles more than a week ago, Matthew has cut a lethal path, becoming a rare Cat 5 storm two days later. It stormed ashore in Haiti at 7 a.m. Tuesday, hammering the Tiburon Peninsula with 145 mph winds, washing out roads and bridges and leaving what is expected to be a mounting death toll. The area remains largely cut off. On Wednesday and Thursday, Matthew began rolling over the Bahamas, where damages are still being assessed.
By Thursday evening, with nearly round-the-clock warnings, much of Florida had hunkered down. Earlier, westbound traffic on I-10 out Jacksonville jammed up with people evacuating northeast Florida. On Alligator Alley, a service station midway across ran out of fuel. Along the west coast, hotels began filling up. The state has partnered with AirBnb to offer free shelter to evacuating residents.
Though hundreds of thousands of people fled the danger zones, others opted to ride it out along beachfront stretches from Brevard to Volusia County expected to endure 100-plus mph winds for hours Friday. Authorities urged 17,000 people in Martin County to leave barrier islands but many stayed put.
“My biggest concern is people aren’t taking this seriously enough,”' Gov. Rick Scott warned at his third hurricane briefing of the day from St. John’s County. “I don’t want people to lose their life.”
In Melbourne, residents were anxious, though not necessarily heeding orders.
“I’m worried. They’re telling us this is going to be the worst one we’ve ever seen,” said Marion Smith, 76, who lives in the Palm Bay Estates trailer park just yards from the bay. Thursday evening, senior citizens began filing into the clubhouse, where they planned to ride out the storm next to a stockpile of pool noodles, deck chairs and board games.
At Palm Bay’s Tropical Inn Resort, a hotel that also houses people rehabilitating from substance abuse, feelings were mixed over whether to worry.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal,” said Allen Briggs, 43, whose family has lived in the region since the 1880s. “You know how the news is, always making a big deal out of it. I’m not worried.”
Mariah Cheek, newly transplanted from North Dakota with her husband, wasn’t so sure.
“I think a lot of people are underestimating it,” she said. “A lot of people I work with aren’t worried, saying it’s not going to be a big deal.”
The National Weather Service in Melbourne warned Thursday that the approaching storm is the “strongest hurricane to affect this area in decades,” and that wind damage could leave some areas uninhabitable for weeks. Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist with The Weather Channel who grew up in Melbourne, said on Facebook that “there is nothing in the record book even close.”
Though the Space Coast has dealt with tropical storms over the past decade, Klotzbach said no major storm has ever been recorded making a hit going back to 1851. In 2004, Frances and Jeanne sent damaging winds north, but both made landfall in Martin County. In 1995, Hurricane Erin hit Vero Beach, but it crossed Brevard County with peak winds of about 100 mph, making it a Category 1 storm.
The area has benefited from the geometry of its coast, Klotzbach said, which swings to the west.
“Hurricanes track from east to west and as you get to the western part of the Atlantic, they move more toward the north,” he said.
Over the years, bedroom communities in the area have grown into bustling cities, fueled in part by a population boom in Orlando and across Central Florida. If a Category 3 storm were to strike, CoreLogic estimates reconstruction costs for St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties alone could top $5.4 billion.
In Jacksonville, local officials worried about apathy, and ignorance. The city hasn’t taken a hit since Hurricane Dora in 1964, long enough for a generation of Gen X-ers and Millennials to have never experienced a storm.
“To be clear, if this storm stays toward the left side of the National Hurricane Center cone and comes ashore over East Central Florida,” Norcross wrote, “this will be the worst hurricane ever recorded in that part of the state.”
Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas, David Smiley and Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.