(This story has been updated.)

A highly-populated, vast stretch of Florida’s east coast faces its most extreme hurricane threat in modern history.

Computer model forecasts have converged on the idea that Hurricane Matthew, which is intensifying, will directly strike the area between roughly West Palm Beach and the Georgia border. Packing maximum winds of 140 mph and stronger gusts, Matthew is poised to become the first Category 4 or stronger storm to make landfall in this region since records began in 1851.

“There has never been a hurricane like this in East-Central Florida,” writes Bryan Norcross, a hurricane specialist at the Weather Channel. “There is nothing to compare it to. If it comes ashore on or south of the Treasure Coast — the counties immediately north of Palm Beach — with the intensity that is forecast, damage will far exceed what we saw in Frances and Jeanne in 2004.”

It is likely to become a multibillion-dollar disaster given all of the infrastructure in its path.

“Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months,” the National Weather Service is warning. It says even sturdy buildings may sustain structural damage “some with complete roof and wall failures” and that mobile homes could be completely destroyed.

Widespread power outages, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, are possible and may last days to weeks.

In addition to its destructive winds, Matthew is expected to push ashore a dangerous storm surge along the coast of up to 7 to 11 feet above the ground in the hardest-hit areas. Such a rise in water would cause severe coastal flooding.

“Failure to adequately shelter may result in serious injury, loss of life, or immense human suffering,” the Weather Service forecast office serving Melbourne, Fla., is warning.

The storm is also forecast to unload torrential rainfall, more than a foot in some areas.

The worst conditions are expected at the following locations and times:

  • Southeast coast from Miami to Port Lucie, including Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach: 5 p.m. Thursday to 3 a.m. Friday
  • East central coast from Port Lucie to Titusville, including Melbourne and the Space Coast: Midnight to 11 a.m. Friday
  • Northeast coast from Titusville to Jacksonville, including Daytona Beach: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday.

There is still a small chance the storm wobbles east, which would keep the eye and worst storm effects offshore, but even in that scenario, the coast would still be assaulted by serious hurricane conditions.

Below, in detail, are the latest projections for the array of severe storm hazards expected along Florida’s east coast.

The wind

“Widespread extensive to devastating wind impacts will be felt,” the Weather Service office serving the Melbourne area cautions.

Winds will be strongest on the immediate coast line, in areas just to the north of where Matthew’s eye tracks. As the storm center is forecast to tear straight up the coast from south to north, Matthew’s fierce northern eyewall is expected to rake a huge amount of real estate.

“Hurricane winds increase very rapidly with height, and residents of high-rise buildings are at particular risk of strong winds,” the National Hurricane Center warns.

Sustained winds of at least 100 mph are possible, and gusts of at least 120 mph are possible in the hardest-hit areas.

“Airborne debris lofted by extreme winds will be capable of breaching structures, unprotected windows and vehicles,” the Weather Service says. “Effects such as these ranging from the coast to well inland have not been experienced in Central Florida in decades. Local winds will exceed what occurred during the hurricanes of 2004.”

Because the storm will weaken some as it interacts with land, the strongest winds will occur when it first makes landfall and should slowly decrease as it moves north.

Below are wind forecast graphics produced by the Weather Channel for Melbourne, Daytona Beach and Jacksonsville:

Even areas inland over Florida’s peninsula, away from the coast, could deal with sustained winds over 50 mph, which will lead to power outages.

A model from the University of Michigan shows the potential for large percentages of Florida’s east coast to lose power — with the highest values near the coast.

In addition to straight-line winds, landfalling hurricanes are know to spawn tornadoes.

As the strongest winds are forecast to occur overnight in many areas along Florida’s southeast and east central coast, residents would be wise to sleep on the lowest floor of their home away from windows — to protect themselves from falling trees. Consider staying on the opposite side of the house from the wind and close curtains/shutters on windows facing the wind.

Storm surge

While wind is likely to cause the most widespread damage from Matthew, storm surge — the tsunami-like rise in ocean water from the storm’s winds — may be the most life-threatening hazard.

Some areas may see rise in water of 7 to 11 feet above dry land if the maximum surge coincides with high tide. “That is unsurvivable,” the Weather Channel’s Norcross warns.

The Weather Service cautions the surge may render some locations “uninhabitable for an extended period” and posted a list of horrifying consequences:

  • Deep inundation with storm surge flooding accentuated by battering waves
  • Structural damage to buildings, with several washing away
  • Large sections of near-shore escape routes and secondary roads may be washed out or severely flooded
  • Major damage to marinas, docks, boardwalks, piers, and other coastal structures
  • Many small craft broken away from moorings

The highest storm surge of 7 to 11 feet is projected to occur from Sebastian Inlet, which is just north of Vero Beach, and northward along the Florida coast. (The storm surge will be greatest on the immediate north side of Matthew’s center.) This region includes Melbourne, Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach and Jacksonville.

“People in this region should expect a swift and powerful storm surge could destroy many structures along the coast on Friday and early Saturday,” storm-surge expert Hal Needham writes on his blog.

Needham notes that if the storm makes landfall near or south of Palm Beach County, “it would likely produce the highest waters levels there since 1947.”

The rain

Torrential rain may cause flash flooding. Poor drainage areas and those locations that typically flood during heavy rain events are most vulnerable.

“Flood waters can enter many structures within multiple communities, some structures becoming uninhabitable or washed away,” the Weather Service warns.

It adds: “Rivers and tributaries may rapidly overflow their banks in multiple places. Small streams, creeks, canals, and ditches may become dangerous rivers.”

Generally, around 8 inches of rain are forecast near the coast, but isolated amounts to 15 inches are possible.

Preparedness

This storm poses the greatest threat to east central Florida in generations and severe damage is inevitable. But casualties can be avoided if people follow evacuation orders and guidance from officials.

Norcross write: “Nobody needs to die or even be injured in this hurricane. There is time, even at this late hour, to get to a safe spot to ride out the storm. It is especially critical from Palm Beach County north that nobody stays on a barrier island or in an evacuation zone. This storm is not going to linger so this will not be a long drawn out process. Get to safety. Get your family and friends to safety. If ever there was a day, today is the day to be smart.”

Hurricane Matthew pummels the Southeast coast

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Storm surge and rainwater burst the banks of Colonial Lake and partially submerge park benches after Hurricane Matthew hit Charleston, South Carolina October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)