Hurricane Matthew, a lethal storm already blamed for 11 deaths, began to regain power Wednesday after crossing Haiti and Cuba, holding steady to a path taking it dangerously close to Florida.
At 11 a.m., Matthew was located about 105 miles south of Long Island, Bahamas, moving at 12 mph. Sustained winds reached 120 mph, with the storm expected to keep pushing northwestward for the next two days. It will likely near, or make landfall, on the Florida coast Thursday evening.
With the track continuing to aim for Florida, forecasters expanded their hurricane warning to cover nearly the entire east coast of the state, from the Miami-Dade and Broward County line north to Flagler County, just south of Jacksonville.
Forecasters expect Matthew to stay on a northwest course over the next day or two with no change in speed. However, they warn predicting a storm that runs so close to the coast can be difficult because even a slight turn can mean major impacts.
On Tuesday, the storm dumped heavy rain on Haiti and Cuba. A bigger threat facing the Bahamas today will be storm surge. Forecasters warn as much as 15 feet could slam the islands. In Florida, they are predicting between 3 and 5 feet up and down the coast.
Across the islands, people were raced to complete preparations after Prime minister Perry Christie urged them to prepare for a “worst-case scenario.’’
In Florida, which hasn’t had a major hurricane make landfall in more than a decade, Gov. Rick Scott urged residents to be prepared for direct hit.
“These are all projections -- we must be prepared for a direct hit,’’ he said.
Residents in barrier islands prone to flooding should evacuate and not wait until the storm hits, he said. About 500 national guard troops have been activated and will be deployed around the state to assist counties with evacuations, he added.
In South Florida, people began to scramble for hurricane supplies Tuesday and gas stations and grocery stores remained crowded with long lines forming Wednesday morning.
The Shell station off of Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Interstate 95 still had gas Wednesday morning -- but with two-deep lines at almost every pump.
“We learned from Andrew. And Katrina. And Wilma," said Lance Randall of Pembroke Pines, who pumped 30 gallons into a massive tank for his generator in the back of his pickup truck.
On social media, residents were reporting grocery stories low on water and empty gas pumps in Broward County. Scott said that there was plenty of fuel supplies, and most gas stations would be replenished.
Meanwhile, along Florida’s beaches, residents were installing hurricane shutters and moving watercraft out of harm’s way, while tourists began packing up.
Emergencies have been declared in four states — all of Florida and South Carolina, eastern and central North Carolina and southeastern Georgia.
In Florida, Broward County and Miami-Dade schools will be open Wednesday, but closed Thursday and Friday. Shelter locations were announced in several Broward cities where flooding is normally a problem during storms.
A hurricane warning is in effect from Golden Beach north to Sebastian Inlet. Miami-Dade and parts of the Keys are under a tropical storm warning. Scott sounded a grim reminder about the devastating cost of not being prepared.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley ordered a complete evacuation of the state's coast on Wednesday, amounting to more than one million of the state’s 4.8 million people.
"Our goal is to make sure you get 100 miles away from the coast," Haley said.
The storm made landfall in western Haiti on Tuesday morning, causing severe flooding and wind damage. It then made landfall in eastern Cuba with winds of 140 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The Bahamas are next.
Washed out roads and damaged bridges in Haiti made much of the Tiburon peninsula, where damage is expected to be greatest, inaccessible. Haiti bore the brunt of the winds and rain. Five people have been confirmed dead and 10 injured, the country's Office of Civil Protection said.
Authorities are still compiling an assessment of the storm's impact especially in the Grand' Anse, which remains cut off because of no cell phone service, said Spokesman Edgar Celestin.
At least 1,855 homes were flooded, affecting 2,700 families. Some 15,000 people were evacuated into shelters, authorities said.
In addition, “much of the population” had been displaced by Matthew and at least 10,000 were in shelters, said Mourad Wahba, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Haiti.
“Haiti is facing the largest humanitarian event witnessed since the earthquake six years ago,” he said.
Photographs posted on Twitter and other social media Tuesday and Wednesday showed thick, raging flood waters overtaking bridges and spilling over riverbanks. Roofs were torn off of homes and in some places the flooding was shoulder high.
The U.S. government said it was ready to provide relief and around 300 U.S. Marines set off on the USS Mesa Verde to assist Haiti, the Marines said in a tweet.
Haitians could also face illness from another threat -- standing water. Haiti is still recovering from a post-quake cholera outbreak that has killed 10,000 people.
"Water is going to be a major issue," Jean Claude Fignole, Oxfam's influence program director in Haiti, told CNN.
"Our priority is to get clean water and hygiene items to families as fast as possible to avoid a spike in cases of cholera. In the weeks and months to come, hunger is likely to emerge as big concern. Some crops in the South of the country have been totally destroyed."
Schools are closed until Monday and American Airlines' flights to Haiti's two international airports in Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince were canceled.
In Cuba, the storm lashed Imías, Maisí y Baracoa in the easternmost province of Guantánamo on Tuesday night.
During the height of the storm, journalists from the radio station La Voz del Sol in Baracoa and television station Primada Vision posted updates on Facebook.
“The walls of the station have been shaking and it just felt like something was falling. Of the paladar in front, I think there’s very little standing, very sad. We were praying that the sea wouldn’t reach the station; it didn’t happen but…. Now it’s calm, there is no rain, no wind. We are in the eye of the hurricane.”
As residents began to emerge from their homes in Baracoa just after dawn, they posted photos of streets littered with rubble, collapsed walls and spider webs of fallen electrical lines.
By 6 a.m. Wednesday, Matthew had moved 75 miles north of Baracoa but the effects of the hurricane were still being felt.
Hurricane-force winds whipping the province of Holguín were expected to diminish as the hurricane moved further north. Still, tropical-storm force winds continued to attack eastern provinces as far west as Camagüey.
Storm surges of 10 to 13 feet, with waves as high 25 feet, were still causing coastal flooding on the north coasts of Guantánamo and Holguín provinces and, to a lesser degree, from Las Tunas to Camagüey, according to Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology. On the north coast of Ciego de Ávila, light flooding also was reported.
Cuban forecasters said rainfall of four to six inches was expected Wednesday with more in mountainous areas.
Some slight strengthening is forecast during the next couple of days. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 40 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 160 miles.
At Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay Navy base, which evacuated about 715 family members plus pets for the Florida panhandle over the weekend, the base commander reported some downed trees and that a section of the base lost power.
But Capt. David Culpepper predicted over base radio Tuesday night that, after a public works assessment of the 45-square-mile facility Wednesday morning, troops and other workers who had spent two nights in shelters could return to their quarters or homes.
By 8 a.m. on Wednesday there was no word from the prison, which occupies a seafront portion of the base within the base, on whether the detention center commander decided to evacuate the 61 war on terror detainees from the Camp 6 and 7 prison buildings, and how those steel and cement structures fared the storm.
Forecasters were also watching Tropical Storm Nicole in the Atlantic, about 500 miles north of San Juan, Puerto Rico and headed for Bermuda.
Miami Herald staff writers David Neal, Kristen M. Clark and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report. The story was also supplemented with material from The Associated Press and the Washington Post.