As Hurricane Matthew’s outer bands began pounding Jamaica and southwest Haiti on Monday, the long-term forecast for Florida took a bleak turn.
In their Monday evening advisory, National Hurricane Center forecasters said computer models have shifted Matthew’s track westward after three days, putting Florida and the U.S. Southeast coast at greater risk. The storm was located 200 miles southwest of Port-Au-Prince, traveling north, northeast at 8 mph at 8 p.m. Sustained winds remained at 140 mph, keeping Matthew a fierce Category 4 hurricane.
While forecasters have been wary about the long-range forecast — beyond three days, tracks can be off by as much as 175 miles — they said models Monday afternoon shifted in response to the strengthening of a subtropical ridge. A strong ridge would steer the storm to the northwest. That shift also followed an earlier westward slide, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
“The morning run was generally a little further west, but not like eye-popping. And also it’s one run,” he said. “So in this round of runs, they saw that ridge as stronger. We’ll see if that continues.”
With the new forecast track shifting the cone of concern over a large swath of the state, including South Florida, state officials warned residents to get serious about preparations. On Monday afternoon, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the entire state.
“If Matthew directly impacts Florida,” he said, “there will be massive destruction we have not seen in years, comparable to what we saw in Hurricane Andrew.”
Forecasters said late Monday that Matthew would likely pick up speed tonight and make a turn toward the northwest on Wednesday. The center of the storm was set to move over Haiti Monday night, eastern Cuba on late Tuesday and across the southeastern Bahamas late Tuesday and early Wednesday.
Around the Caribbean, countries evacuated thousands of residents as conditions worsened.
In Haiti, government officials went door to door warning residents. Cuban authorities organized a mass exodus and moved more than 430,000 people from the southeast coast. The Dominican Republic relocated another 13,000 people. Jamaica — which replaced its hurricane warning with a tropical storm warning Monday evening — sent buses to ferry residents from harbor towns. U.S. Naval officials shipped about 700 family members from the Naval base at Guantánamo Bay to Pensacola.
If it hits Haiti, Matthew would be the first major hurricane to strike a direct blow in 50 years, raising concerns about widespread destruction. Rain poses the most serious threat. Forecasters warn the storm could dump up to two feet of rain on the country, with as much as 40 inches possible in some places, likely triggering lethal mudslides.
Seas churned up by the massive storm already have claimed two victims in Haiti near the coastal town of Les Cayes — a fisherman, whose body washed ashore Saturday, and another man whose canoe broke up and remains missing. A buoy near the storm early Monday recorded a wave height of nearly 34 feet.
Rain across the region could be “staggering,” said National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb. Parts of Cuba are expected to get 8 to 12 inches, with as much as 20 inches in some locations.
“We will be measuring rainfall in feet, not inches,” Knabb said.
Hurricane-force winds spread across 80 miles. Tropical storm-force winds covered 370 miles.
Matthew is also expected to generate dangerous storm surges, with massive waves likely to raise water well in advance of the storm’s arrival. Forecasters warned that the south coast of Haiti could see a surge of 7 to 10 feet. Cuba’s southern coast could get 7 to 11 feet. Ten to 15 feet is forecast for the central and southeastern Bahamas.
Matthew could weaken slightly as it passes over the mountainous islands, but forecasters warn it will likely remain a powerful hurricane when it reaches the southeastern Bahamas.
With punishing weather already hitting the islands Monday, people began seeking shelter. In Jamaica’s eastern parish of St. Thomas, where streets were already beginning to flood Monday, more than 700 people left homes in vulnerable, coastal areas. A 200-bed shelter in Kingston was at twice its capacity, prompting the Salvation Army to put out an urgent call for mattresses and cots. Late Monday, some shelters at the island’s east end lacked basic supplies, including flashlights, mattresses and food. Authorities were rushing to deliver the provisions in advance of the winds.
Even as parts of the islands began to flood, many residents ignored orders to leave. In the old port city of Port Royal at the mouth of Kingston Harbor, government minister Desmond McKenzie said two buses sent to evacuate residents ferried only two adults and two children to safety. Others in the neighborhood insisted on staying to protect their homes. Schools will remain closed Tuesday.
In Haiti, authorities went door to door in the south coastal cities of Les Cayes and Jeremie to warn people. At least 1,200 people were evacuated to shelters in schools and churches. Schools were also shuttered in Port-Au-Prince, where residents lined up at gas stations and emptied supermarket shelves.
Some worried that the city of roughly a million people would not fare well. “We are not prepared,” unemployed mason Fritz Achelus said as he watched water pool on a downtown street.
Haiti’s dire record of poundings from hurricanes goes back decades, said Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach. In 1954, Hurricane Hazel followed a similar path as Matthew, killing 400 before striking the U.S. in the Carolinas. Nearly a decade later, about 7,000 people died when Hurricane Flora struck and dumped nearly five feet of rain in three days.
Even without a direct hit, damage on the island can be brutal. At least 1,200 died after Hurricane Gordon brushed the island in 1994, and in 2004, Jeanne triggered lethal mudslides and flooding as a tropical depression that killed more than 3,000.
“The thing with Haiti is the winds are going to stink. But honestly, for them, the thing that’s much worse is the rain,” Klotzbach said. “You could see a death toll in the thousands. That’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
Matthew is also moving at half the speed of an average Caribbean hurricane, raising the risk for even more rain, he said.
Haiti and the Cuban provinces of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Granma and Las Tunas all remain under a hurricane warning. The government of the Bahamas issued a warning for the Central Bahamas and a watch for the northwestern Bahamas.
The U.S. Coast Guard also posted alerts for Port of Miami and other South Florida ports and marinas, requiring vessels to contact the port commander if they plan to remain. The agency advised other vessels to find safe harbor. Drawbridges may not operate in winds over 25 mph, the Coast Guard said.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giminez plans to hold a press conference Tuesday morning. Emergency Operations Chief Curt Sommerhoff said earlier Monday that the county was watching the storm and checking on residents who might need help evacuating. He also reached out to South Florida water managers Sunday evening who said they plan on lowering canals and waterways in advance of the wet storm.
In Cuba, leader Raúl Castro and a group of cabinet ministers oversaw hurricane preparations in the six eastern provinces that could be affected. Hurricane Sandy walloped Santiago in 2012, damaging 137,000 homes and killing 11.
“We’re preparing with a lot of discipline, a lot of organization, taking into account the experiences we gained from Sandy,” Lázaro Expósito Canto, first secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago, said on Cuban national television.
“I believe we are very well prepared — better prepared than we were for Sandy,” he said.
In an effort to improve computer models forecasting Matthew’s future track, hurricane hunter planes have been flying into the storm every six hours. A G-IV, nicknamed Gonzo and capable of high-altitude missions, will be making twice-daily flights to gather information around and in advance of Matthew, said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. Local weather offices are also increasing the release of weather balloons to collect information every six hours, he said.
“There’s a lot of balls up in the air right now,” he said. “So we’re going to get as much data as we can into these models.”
Miami Herald writers Mimi Whitefield, Carol Rosenberg, Jim Wyss, Jovan Johnson and David Smiley along with The Associated Press contributed to this report. Staff writer Jacqueline Charles reported from Haiti.