Hurricane Matthew, now a major Category 3 storm, continued to strengthen Friday afternoon with winds reaching 120 mph.
The storm continue to push toward Jamaica, where the island will likely begin to feel the sprawling storm’s fierce winds as early as Saturday. In their 2 p.m. update, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm was located 475 miles southeast of Kingston, heading west, southwest at 12 mph.
Whether Florida takes a hit next week remains too uncertain to call, but residents should stay alert, National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb said Friday morning.
“We cannot rule out a direct hurricane impact in Florida next week,” he said. “Because those models are so widely varying on what they forecast, I’ve been telling folks during the weekend you do not want to tune out.”
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The storm had been expected to become a major storm Friday afternoon, but rapidly intensified over the morning despite a stiff 23 mph wind shear that normally stifles strengthening. Forecasters said Matthew will likely slow today and begin making a turn toward the north Saturday night. More strengthening today is not expected, forecasters said.
With hurricane force winds stretching about 70 miles across, concern for Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti continues to rise. The storm could lose some steam on a track across Jamaica, but quickly rekindle and slam into the eastern tip of Cuba or Haiti. Because the storm’s strongest winds are blowing on the northeast side, Haiti could see fierce winds even without a direct hit, increasing the risk of flooding across the vulnerable island. In February, mudslides destroyed 10,000 homes.
Forecasts now show Matthew skirting Florida’s coast. But historically the majority of October storms have hit the state. Also models become more uncertain forecasting more than three days in advance, with a margin of error as wide as 175 miles.
“We’re going into October now and October is the month for the state of Florida,” said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
While the current track takes the storm just east of Jamaica Monday morning, Matthew could spread heavy wind across the entire island, with winds and waves starting to pick up as early as Saturday, said National Meteorological Service Director Evan Thompson said. The country activated its emergency operations center Friday. Prime Minister Andrew Holness called an emergency meeting with parliament to go over preparation efforts.
Parts of the country could see up to eight inches of rain, raising the risk of landslides on the mountainous island, Thompson said. Kingston, the capital, could also see flooding, he said.
Tropical storm force winds extended 195 miles from the storm’s center.
Matthew’s rapid intensification as it encountered strong wind shear Thursday and early Friday was unusual, hurricane officials said. Between Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, the storm jumped from a weak Cat 1 storm with 75 mph winds to much stronger Cat 3 winds. That kind of quick change should serve as a warning that Floridians need to pay attention to the storm over the weekend, Feltgen said.
“We’ve got this thing going north, but it could be to the left or right. We don’t want this thing dropping off anyone’s radar over the weekend because by Monday it could be a very different storm from what we have now,” he said. “It’s an atmospheric tug of war over the next few days and it will have huge impacts over where this thing goes.”
A hurricane hunter plane, nicknamed Gonzo and capable of flying high altitude missions, is scheduled to fly over the storm again this afternoon. The plane flies around and ahead of the storm to collect information about the atmosphere. In the past, it has improved forecast tracks by as much as 20 percent, Feltgen said. The U.S. Air Force also continues to fly into the storm every six hours to take measurements.
So far, Matthew has been blamed for at least one death: a 16-year-old boy crushed by a boulder on St. Vincent Wednesday when he tried to clear a blocked drain.
A tropical storm warning remains in effect for the north coast of South America between Colombia and the Venezuelan border to Riohacha. Rainfall totaling 2 to 4 inches is expected for the coast, with dangerous rip currents and swells predicted for the coasts of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, the ABC islands, Venezuela, and Colombia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich