Hurricane Matthew’s eyewall teetered just five miles off the Space Coast on Friday morning, as the storm inflicted the most menacing winds and waves that most people in Northeast Florida have not seen in their lifetimes.
The storm relentlessly churned into the morning, slamming Vero Beach, Cape Canaveral, Jacksonville Beach and other coastal cities with 120 mph winds. Before dawn, the Category 3 hurricane danced just miles off the coast, violating barrier islands and producing life-threatening winds and storm surge.
By 8 a.m., with the eye inching closer to landfall near Cape Canaveral, the hurricane’s wrath was causing untold damage as well as fear, as hundreds of thousands were left to weather the howling storm in darkness.
Daniel Thomas, a senior specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said a portion of the hurricane’s eyewall had touched Cape Canaveral, but the storm isn’t considered to have hit landfall until the center of it hits.
“Even if the center does not come ashore, people need to seek shelter and listen to local officials, it is still a very dangerous situation,’;’ Thomas said.
At a 9 a.m. briefing, Gov. Rick Scott said so far there are have been no reported injuries or fatalities. But he cautioned against complacency.
“The storm has only passed half our state, It is not over,” Scott said.
Here are the latest developments:
▪ The hurricane is just a few miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral, where wind speeds could top 120 mph. The storm has caused massive damage, flooding and dangerous storm surge. Hurricane warnings are in effect from Sebastian Inlet to South Santee River in Northeast Florida.
▪ Thousands of people on Florida’s Space Coast are under mandatory evacuation orders, water service has been suspended on barrier islands and more than 300,000 people in northeast Florida are without power.
▪ About 22,000 people are being housed in shelters
▪ As of 8 a.m., 16,700 people were without power in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
▪ Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport reopened 5 a.m. Friday. Storm warnings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have been lifted.
▪ Miami International Airport reopened with limited arrivals and departures.
▪ Schools remained closed in Miami-Dade and Broward counties Friday.
“Matthew is still moving northward up the coast toward Jacksonville. The eyewall is just miles off the coast causing very high winds,’’ said James Thomas of the National Weather Service.
Streets in Vero Beach were partially covered with water, Walt Disney World was closed for only the fourth time in its history and hotel guests in Orlando hunkered down as sheets of rain and wind whipped at a place that is usually known as “the happiest place on earth.’’
Meanwhile, South Floridians woke up to tame winds and minor flooding, after having dodged most of Matthew’s destructive winds Thursday night. But to the north, the lethal storm was responsible for massive power outages.
Scott said at its peak some 600,000 people were without power. Florida Power & Light had restored about 27 percent of its customers, he said. He said there was no timeline for when everyone would be back up.
Crews in South Florida were still assessing damage, but as of 9 a.m. there were no major issues in South Florida other than power problems, the governor said.
Most of the state’s resources were being shifted to the north, and the federal government is providing assistance: food, food delivery trucks, tarps, generators, helicopters and rescue teams. In addition, many states have offered to assist Florida, Scott said.
The lethal storm — blamed for killing more almost 300 people in the Caribbean, most of them in Haiti — threatened to cause destruction to hundreds of miles of the Florida coast from Port St. Lucie to Jacksonville. Matthew could drive flooding ocean waters into coastal communities and cause billions in damage — even if its central core never pushes ashore, experts said.
David Waters, spokesman for Brevard County, said more than 100,000 people were without power Friday morning and there had been several house fires.
“The serious concern is that we don’t want people going outside when there are live power lines,” he said.
At 8 a.m., the National Hurricane Center reported that Matthew is moving toward the north-northwest near 13 mph, and this track is expected to continue today. A turn toward the north is expected Friday night or Saturday. On the forecast track, the center of Matthew will be moving near or over the east coast of the Florida peninsula, and near or over the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday.
South Florida escaped much of Matthew’s fury after the storm took an unexpected turn near Andros Island Thursday that moved it farther north and east, said hurricane center specialist Jack Bevin.
“This little twist did keep the center of the hurricane further way from South Florida and that has so far reduced the amount of wind and rain,” he said.
Still, as many as 107,000 people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties lost power Thursday and into Friday, with the majority in Palm Beach County, according to Florida Power & Light. The utility had restored power to some customers by 5 a.m Friday.
As the storm approaches the coast, its exact track will make all the difference, Bevin said. Even a slight wobble could lead to a record-breaking hit for Central Florida’s east coast.
“Any sort of shift to the left would bring the center onto the coast,” he said.
Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist with The Weather Channel who grew up in Melbourne, said on Facebook that “there is nothing in the record book even close.”
Though the Space Coast has dealt with tropical storms over the past decade, experts said no major storm has ever been recorded making a hit going back to 1851. In 2004, Frances and Jeanne sent damaging winds north, but both made landfall in Martin County. In 1995, Hurricane Erin hit Vero Beach, but it crossed Brevard County with peak winds of about 100 mph, making it a Category 1 storm.
Evacuation orders have been issued for more than 2.5 million people from Florida to South Carolina, and dozens of shelters were opened in Florida to house evacuees. National guard troops were deployed by Gov. Rick Scott, who declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.
President Obama also signed emergency declarations for Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, a mechanism that would send federal aid and relief assistance to those states.
Since it formed near the lesser Antilles more than a week ago, Matthew has cut a deadly path, becoming a rare Cat 5 storm two days later. It stormed ashore in Haiti at 7 a.m. Tuesday, hammering the Tiburon Peninsula with 145 mph winds, washing out roads and bridges and leaving what is expected to be a mounting death toll. The area remains largely cut off. On Wednesday and Thursday, Matthew began rolling over the Bahamas, where damage is still being assessed.