Read about the 5 p.m. advisory and beyond here.
Hurricane Matthew, blamed for killing at least 108 in Haiti, began battering Florida Thursday as residents up and down the coast braced for what could be the first strike by a major storm in a decade.
At 3 p.m., the storm was roughly parallel to the Miami-Dade and Broward county line, steaming toward Freeport at about 14 mph.
“We know how strong the winds are. This is a Category 4 hurricane and it’s able to push the ocean around quite a bit,” National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb said, urging Floridians to stay put. “From this point forward, there’s just not much good to be gained from being out on the roads.”
The National Hurricane Center said in their latest advisory that sustained wind speeds remained at 140 mph, but warned winds could continue to intensify through the day. Tropical storm force winds should begin pounding the state in the next several hours, they said.
At 2 p.m, a gauge at the lighthouse at Fowey Rock off Cape Florida registered 36 mph winds, with a peak gust earlier in the day of 53 mph.
As the storm neared the coast Thursday afternoon, Florida began to lock down. Disney World announced it would close at 5 p.m. and remain closed Friday, the first time since Hurricane Wilma more than a decade ago. Florida Power & Light shut down its St. Lucie nuclear power plant, just south of Ft. Pierce, at 11 a.m., and airports in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando closed. Broward County’s sheriff closed roads at 3 p.m., although he said drivers would not be ticketed.
Nearly 3,000 people fled vulnerable homes — Gov. Rick Scott warned the state could see its biggest evacuation ever — while President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency.
Storm surge churned up by the powerful storm is likely to be severe. Strong winds — hurricane force winds spread across 120 miles — may also strike well inland, authorities said, so residents need to heed evacuation orders, particularly those living in mobile homes.
FPL warned that up to 2.5 million customers could lose power, with thousands already without service in Miami-Dade and Broward. Residents of highrises should also remember that winds become stronger higher up. Anyone above 25 to 30 stories could feel winds a category higher than at ground level, they said.
After Friday, Matthew is expected to begin turning to the east, then get caught in westerly winds. While its future path remains uncertain, computer models are now predicting a scary scenario: a possibly double whammy with the storm striking the Bahamas and Florida twice due to a seasonal Bermuda High blocking a northward path.
Even if South Florida doesn't feel the direct impact, forecasters are giving the region a good chance of getting whipped by tropical storm force winds beginning in the afternoon and continuing through early Friday.
"It’s a good day to stay at home, enjoy your family and wait out the storm," Mayor Carlos Gimenez said during a briefing at the county’s Doral-based Emergency Operations Center.
About 1,000 police officers are on the streets today and will continue to patrol until the storm’s winds reach 55 mph, Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said. Residents should hold off on any non-emergency calls, he said.
“We don’t want to have to be responding to minor calls and reports of incidents that can wait until after the storm passes so we’re all safe,” Perez said.
Across South Florida Thursday, preparations remained hit or miss despite urgent warnings from authorities over the last few days.
Up and down Southwest Eighth Street, many shops and restaurants — the Latin American Cafe, Ace Hardware and Rey’s Pizza — were business as usual in the morning. Thursday’s long gas lines had mostly vanished. Publix closed stores, with a few exceptions, at noon east of I-95 in Miami-Dade and Broward and at 2 p.m. west of the interstate.
More than 600 people evacuated to four storm shelters around the county. The busiest: Booker T. Washington Senior High in Overtown, had about 300 people. Only one of the shelters accepts pets: Darwin Fuchs Pavilion in the Youth Fair complex. At the latest county, shelter housed 36 people, six dogs, two cars and three parakeets.
In Miami Shores, Eli Bru-Garcia and her father Jaime Bru were doing what they do every morning: jogging along the bay. They did not shutter their home,
From downtown Miami, through Belle Meade and Morningside and up to Aventura, very few homes and businesses were shuttered. Some stores were open, mainly drug and liquor and grocery stores and gas stations. Otherwise, people seemed to be taking advantage of a day off work.
"I'm not scared. Not here," said tech worker Alex Macedo, 40, as he tossed coconuts to his dog. "I think if you're up north you should be concerned."
About 58 shelters were open across the state, Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday morning, with another 84 scheduled to open. About 3,000 residents have already evacuated. Scott also activated 2,500 National Guard troops, who had positioned 150 trucks around the state, carrying water and enough food for more than 10,000. Search and rescue teams are on standby in West Palm Beach and Orlando, said Air Force Maj. Caitlin Brown of the Florida National Guard.
The Guard also has nearly 2,500 "high water vehicles," eight helicopters, 17 boats and more than 700 generators that could be used in emergency operations, she added.
Mandatory evacuations have been ordered along the coast, from Brevard to Palm Beach counties, and voluntary evacuations in Broward County. With so many disruptions, political groups also fear the storm could interrupt voter registration before the state’s Tuesday deadline.
At Miami International Airport, about 90 percent of the daily flights were canceled, but airport officials said early Thursday they don’t expect to close the airport.
In Broward County, which has an 80 percent chance of getting slammed by tropical storm force winds, authorities were bracing for heavy winds.
“Stay in doors -- hazardous conditions will come very soon,” Broward Sheriff Office Fire Chief Joseph Fernandez said at a 10 a.m. press briefing in Plantation.
The number of people in shelters fell from a high of 2,200 Wednesday night to about 1,900 Thursday. Emergency rooms also reported an uptick in minor injuries from storm preparations.
Further up the coast, where Matthew may make landfall, beachgoers were taking a last look before winds pick up despite mandatory evacuation orders.
By midday, with wind gusts on Palm Beach had picked up, churning up waves that drew gawkers and even swimmers.
"I think they are going to hurt themselves," 8-year-old Murphie Ockunzzi said.
"We wanted to see the beach before it all goes away," said David Weinstein, 58, as he watched waves from the beach in Melbourne. The retired Navy sailor lives on the barrier island but is staying in a hotel on the mainland.
Gary Scannelli, 58, boarded up his townhouse three blocks from the beach, where he plans to stay with his wife and two Chihuahuas. This is his first hurricane for the New Jersey transplant and his neighbors assured him their block would survive. They stocked up on water and boxed wine.
"It seems to be easier than leaving. Hotels are booked all the way through Tampa," he said.
Overnight and throughout the afternoon, Matthew continued to pound the Bahamas. Just before midday, the storm’s eyewall slammed full force with 140 mph winds into New Providence Island and the nation’s capital, Nassau, home to the bulk of the Bahamas’ 375,000 residents.
It was the first major storm to hit the island since 1929, according to the Nassau Guardian newspaper. Authorities reported downed trees and power lines. Bahamas Power and Light had shut power off to the island as the storm approached. Trees and power lines were downed, but there were no immediate reports of flooding or casualties, said Capt. Stephen Russell, head of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Authority.
On Spanish Wells north of Eleuthera, resident Lance Pinder said winds reached 70 mph about 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning.
Staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Kristen Clark, Doug Hanks, David Ovalle, Audra Burch, Chuck Rabin, Nancy San Martin, Carol Rosenberg, Chabelli Herrera, Amy Sherman, David Neal, Lance Dixon, Andres Viglucci, Curtis Morgan. Glenn Garvin, Patricia Mazzei and Julie K. Brown contributed to this report.