This post has been updated.
Hurricane Matthew is tearing through the Bahamas on its way to Florida, where it could make landfall as a major hurricane as early as Thursday.
Even if Matthew does not make direct landfall, storm surge, damaging winds and flooding rain are possible — even likely — from Fort Lauderdale to the Space Coast. If the eye of the hurricane comes ashore, it would end the longest span in history in which U.S. shores have avoided landfall by a major hurricane — Category 3 or stronger.
Matthew maintained its Category 3 intensity Wednesday afternoon as it tracked into the Bahamas, but is expected to strengthen as it approaches Florida. On Wednesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center shifted its forecast slightly to the west, increasing the likelihood that the storm will batter the coast for hours, but also make landfall somewhere in Florida on Friday morning.
A hurricane warning has been hoisted for Florida from Golden Beach to the Flagler-Volusia county line, which includes Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Cape Canaveral and Daytona Beach. A tropical storm warning is in effect for the southern coast of Florida, including Miami, and a hurricane watch extends from Sebastian Inlet to the Georgia-South Carolina border.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) has declared a state of emergency in Florida, as have the governors in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Scott said that some mandatory and voluntary evacuations were in place in Florida on Wednesday.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) activated the South Carolina National Guard and said the state would evacuate all coastal communities and close all coastal schools on Wednesday. More than 1 million people in South Carolina are expected to be under evacuation orders, and by Wednesday morning, roads were already jammed as people tried to leave the region.
“If Matthew directly impacts Florida, there will be massive destruction that we haven’t seen in years,” Scott said during a news conference.
Hurricane Matthew resources
At 5 p.m., Wednesday, the center of Hurricane Matthew was about 350 miles southeast of Miami and crawling into the Bahamas. In addition to the destructive 115 mph to 130 mph winds that are expected, many islands will experience a 10-to-15-foot storm surge and a foot or more of rain. The orientation of the track will rake it across many islands in the country, including the capital city, Nassau.
This hurricane has the potential to severely impact 350 miles of Florida’s coastline. Although the bulk of the heavy rain associated with Matthew is forecast to remain offshore, some areas near the coast could see up to 10 inches, so localized flooding is a serious concern.
The expected track will also bring storm surge to a very large portion of the Florida coast. Storm surge is the water that gets bulldozed onto land by winds that blow from the ocean to land. The storm surge occurs on top of the normal astronomical tides, so water levels can be very high especially near high tide.
A storm surge warning is in effect from central Palm Beach County up to and including Indian River County, where water levels could reach three to five feet above ground. A storm surge watch extends from Brevard County up to and including Volusia County.
Rather than narrowing in on a solution, the model guidance has taken a turn for the worst and actually introduced a lot more uncertainty beyond Friday. Now, none of the GFS or European ensemble forecasts indicate a track over the Northeast U.S., but rather an eastward turn once it’s up near North Carolina on Saturday. And not just a turn, but a decent number of ensemble members actually suggest the storm could make a loop, keeping the hurricane in this general area for the next seven to 10 days.
Other models are also beginning to show a more rapid departure from the Southeast coast than prior runs did, which is great news for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Given this trend and the agreement among models, impacts from the storm may not end up reaching beyond North Carolina.
Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina can expect tropical storm and hurricane conditions to arrive Friday morning and lasting through Saturday afternoon, from south to north. Although the storm could be weaker by then, it will still be a dangerous hurricane; a potentially damaging storm surge is possible along the coast from Florida to South Carolina.
As the time gets closer, forecasts on rainfall amounts, storm surge levels, and wind speeds will improve, but preliminary preparations should begin on Wednesday. If the model trends continue, the threat to northern North Carolina would decrease.
Mark Berman contributed to this report.