This post has been updated.
As Hurricane Matthew inched closer to Florida, it was downgraded to a Category 3 storm at 2 a.m. Friday with maximum sustained winds still dangerous at 120 mph. By 6 a.m., the hurricane was about 25 miles from Cape Canaveral and an extreme wind warning was issued, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The storm continued to dole out strong gusts and heavy rain. The center of the hurricane will rake up the coastline Thursday night through Friday, likely exposing a vast area of real estate to its most destructive force — the dangerous northern eye wall. Matthew will be a potentially historic nightmare for much of Florida’s east coast.
Some of the latest models and the official track forecast from the National Hurricane Center keep the center of Matthew slightly offshore with no official Florida landfall, which could slightly reduce the storm’s impact. However, some modeling still shows the eye of the storm crossing the coastline. The difference is a matter of miles, and well within the margin of error of even the best of today’s models. Either way, the likely storm impacts range from crippling to catastrophic.
The National Hurricane Center is predicting a 7 to 11-foot storm surge along the central and northern Florida coastline. Sebastian Inlet to Edisto Beach is particularly vulnerable to this surge, including parts of the St. Johns River. Up to 12 inches of rain is possible and winds will likely reach 100 mph. If the eye wall is onshore, sustained winds could be in the 120 to 130 mph ballpark with higher gusts.
The NWS office in Melbourne is using very strong wording to inform people that this is not a storm to take lightly:
- Structural damage to sturdy buildings, some with complete roof and wall failures. Complete destruction of mobile homes. Damage greatly accentuated by large airborne projectiles. Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
- Numerous large trees snapped or uprooted, along with fences and roadway signs blown over.
- Many roads impassable from large debris, and more within urban or heavily wooded places. Many bridges, causeways and access routes impassable.
- Widespread power and communications outages.
“This is serious,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said during a briefing Thursday morning. “This storm will kill you. Time is running out.”
More than 1.5 million Floridians live in evacuation zones, according to Scott. Late Wednesday, he asked President Obama to declare a federal emergency in Florida due to the storm’s “potential to bring devastating impacts to millions of Floridians.” In total, more than 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders from Florida to South Carolina.
The total destruction left behind in western Haiti and eastern Cuba has not even been fully realized, but it serves as a reminder of what a Category 4 hurricane is capable of. More than 280 people died in Haiti during the storm, and that number may continue to rise as people scour the worst-hit mountainous region.
The Bahamas took a punishing blow on Thursday afternoon. A slight wobble in the track meant Hurricane Matthew’s strong inner core lingered among the islands longer than expected. Freeport, with a population of around 25,000, withstood more severe conditions than predicted because of the small jaunt.
Earlier in the day, Matthew blasted Nassau with extreme wind gusts of at least 100 mph that toppled palm trees and ripped the roofs off homes. Winds were so strong that the country’s official weather stations went offline during the peak of the storm, making direct observations nearly impossible.
The forecast beyond Florida is improving, with a turn to the east expected Saturday that would take it farther away from the South Carolina coast and quite far from the North Carolina coast. But that does not mean these areas are out of the woods — far from it. Significant impacts, such as storm surge and strong winds, are still likely in eastern Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday, and residents there should continue their preparations.
At 5 p.m. Thursday, the National Hurricane Center extended the hurricane warning northward to South Santee River, S.C. A tropical storm warning is in effect for the coast from South Santee River to Surf City, N.C.
The Post’s Mark Berman contributed to this report.