Hurricane Matthew, a lethal storm already blamed for 11 deaths, delivered a sobering wake-up call to Florida on Wednesday: a hurricane warning up and down the Atlantic coast that shuttered schools, triggered mandatory evacuations and put billions of dollars of property at risk.
Tracking on a course that leaned closer and closer to Florida, the storm set in motion the state’s first major hurricane drill in more than a decade.
From Westchester to Daytona Beach, lines formed around gas pumps and in supermarkets, windows boarded up and shelters readied. Miami-Dade and Broward counties canceled schools for the rest of the week and for the first time, Port Miami sealed its new $1.1 billion tunnel. In South Florida, drawbridges began locking down and national parks battened down. Florida Power & Light positioned teams anticipating major outages.
Thursday could be close call, with a potential landfall possible in Central Florida. But much of the state may get slammed. Nearly eight million Floridians, not counting tourists, sat in Matthew’s potential path under hurricane or tropical storm warnings. A half million were urged to evacuate their homes.
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With tropical storm force winds expected to begin pounding parts of Florida as early as Thursday morning, President Barack Obama warned that little time remains to prepare.
“This is a serious storm. It has already hit Haiti with devastating effect. It is now in the process of moving through the Bahamas,” he said in a morning briefing. “By tomorrow morning, it will already begin to have significant effect in Florida, and then has the potential to strengthen and move on up the coast.”
At 5 a.m. Thursday morning, Matthew was located about 60 miles southeast of Nassau, moving at 12 mph, National Hurricane Center forecasters said. Sustained winds increased to 125 mph, a slight weakening from earlier in the day that likely won’t last as the storm moves over warm Bahamian waters.
Matthew is expected to continue pushing northwestward, brushing Florida, or even making landfall, late Thursday or Friday as a powerful Category 4 storm.
A hurricane warning has been extended north to Fernandina Beach near the Georgia border.
Powerful storm surges could push seas 5 to 8 feet high from the Sebastian Inlet north and 3 to 5 feet across Broward County and the Treasure Coast.
As Matthew’s track continued to shift west toward the peninsula, forecasters repeatedly warned that storms hugging the coast can prove difficult to predict. Even a slight turn can deliver major impacts.
“It’s geometry,” said former hurricane center director and WPLG hurricane specialist Max Mayfield. “If you draw the Florida peninsula and you have a track parallel to the peninsula like this one, just a five- to 10-degree change in motion is going to bring the core onto the coast.”
On its current track, Matthew should push across the Bahamas on Wednesday and Thursday. Computer models show the storm swinging up the Florida coast on a path similar to Hurricane Floyd in 1999, a storm that vexed forecasters as it plodded along, repeatedly threatening to come ashore until it finally landed in North Carolina.
“The best model we had at time brought it inland … hitting Palm Beach and going right up the East Coast,” said Mayfield, a hurricane specialist at the time assigned to forecast the storm.
Matthew has so far been steered by the Bermuda High, said Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters. Shifts and bulges in the seasonal weather pattern have repeatedly nudged Matthew’s closer to the coast. On Tuesday and Wednesday, fluctuations caused computer models to spit out a long-range track that looked like a doomsday prediction: featuring a startling looping path that had Matthew circling back for a second blow to Florida and the Bahamas.
If there’s any good news, Masters said, it’s that the storm will likely be a much weaker tropical storm if it does indeed strike twice.
As it churns across the Bahamas, Matthew is expected to deliver heavy rain and storm surge that could reach 15 feet in places, a dangerous threat to the flat islands.
Early Wednesday, Prime minister Perry Christie urged Bahamians to prepare for a “worst-case scenario.”
The country’s most populated island, New Providence, could take a direct hit, the first time a major hurricane has landed there since 1929.
Bishop Walter Honchell, a minister in one of Nassau’s poorest areas, said residents were very worried about their safety, particularly since they live in shabbily constructed housing.
“We pray that no lives are lost,”' he said.
In Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who ordered state offices in 26 counties closed and suspended tolls, flew around the state and met with emergency managers to repeat warnings that the powerful storm could unleash heavy damage. Reconstruction costs following a Cat 3 storm for the counties in Matthew’s path run as high as $8.4 billion, according to CoreLogic.
In briefings throughout the day, he urged residents on barrier islands prone to flooding to evacuate and not wait until the storm hits. About 1,500 national guard troops are on standby to help with evacuations, he said.
“This is a dangerous storm. It is never too early to evacuate,” he said.
Emergencies have been declared in four states — all of Florida and South Carolina, eastern and central North Carolina and southeastern Georgia. 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.
Matthew made landfall in western Haiti on Tuesday, delivering severe flooding and wind damage that led the country to cancel Sunday’s overdue elections. The storm then sailed up the Windward Passage to strike Cuba, packing140 mph winds.
Washed out roads and damaged bridges in Haiti have made much of the Tiburon peninsula, where Matthew hit hardest, inaccessible. So far, five deaths have been confirmed, although authorities are still trying to assess damages. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday at least 350,000 people “need immediate assistance,” and that his organization was working quickly to survey the country and provide help. Up to 10,000 remain in shelters.
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 homes and in some places flooding was shoulder high.
The U.S. government said it was ready to provide $1.5 million in relief and shipped 300 U.S. Marines to assist in recovery efforts.
In Cuba, where more than 377,000 people were evacuated, the storm lashed Imías, Maisí and Baracoa in the easternmost province of Guantánamo on Tuesday night. At its peak, journalists from the radio station La Voz del Sol in Baracoa and television station Primada Vision reported walls shaking.
Storm surges of 10 to 13 feet, with waves as high 25 feet, triggered coastal flooding on the north coasts of Guantánamo and Holguín provinces. Cuba’s Institute of Meteorology also reported additional flooding from Las Tunas to Camagüey.
Cuban forecasters said rainfall of four to six inches was expected Wednesday with more in mountainous areas.
At Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay Navy base, which moved about 715 family members to the Florida panhandle, the base commander reported some downed trees. A section of the base also lost power. Troops were expected to be able to return home today.
Forecasters late Thursday were also keeping an eye on two other storms in the Atlantic: Tropical Storm Nicole and a wave a few hundred miles east of the Windward Islands that could bring heavy rains and winds to the islands in the next two days. Nicole, with sustained winds of 70 mph at 11 p.m., was meandering south of Bermuda and not expected to impact the U.S. coast.
Miami Herald staff writers Julie K. Brown, Kyra Gurney, Chabeli Herrera, David Neal, Kristen M. Clark and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.