(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) — Hurricane Matthew battered the Florida coast with powerful winds, potentially devastating storm surges and torrential rain on Friday, leaving hundreds of thousands without power as officials made last-minute appeals for any remaining holdouts to get out of the storm’s way.
Hurricane Matthew claimed its first victim in the U.S. on Friday, as the St. Lucie County, Florida Sheriff confirmed a person died overnight after emergency officials could not get to them after suspending operations because of the storm.
“This is a big major hurricane that is just offshore and it is fully capable of producing life threatening storm surge,” Rick Knabb, Director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC), told Good Morning America, on Friday. “If you are in an area that emergency managers told you to evacuate and they’re telling you to go, you absolutely have to go now. Your life could depend on it.”
The National Weather Service declared an extreme wind warning for Brevard County on Friday morning as the western eye wall of the Category 3 storm brushed by Cape Canaveral, home of the Kennedy Space Center, producing wind gusts in excess of 100 mph.
More than 500,000 people were already without power across Florida, although officials said service was being restored in the southern part of the state.
As of 8 a.m. ET, Hurricane Matthew’s center was 25 miles east-southeast of Daytona Beach.
Meteorologists warned of an imminent destructive storm surge.
“We know from hurricane history that water takes nine out of ten lives in landfall in the U.S.” Knabb added. “Matthew is going to write some history. The key here is you don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want to be writing up a report for the NHC that totals up the storm surge or the inland flooding fatalities and you’re one of them.”
The deadly storm is projected to run parallel to the shore over the next two days, producing a potentially devastating storm surge of up to 10 feet over some 500 miles of coast that stretches from central Florida up into South Carolina. The potential for a destructive storm surge, coupled with up to 15 inches of rain expected in isolated areas, has officials fearing catastrophic flooding.
Forecasters in Jacksonville warned of “worst case storm surge scenario” and said “if a direct impact occurs this will be unlike any hurricane in the modern era.”
“We’ve been blessed that we haven’t had a direct hit,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott told GMA on Friday. “But as you know, with the hurricane force winds we’re going to see a lot of storm surge.
“We’re going to see a lot more storm surge than we’ve seen in the southern part of the state so that’s my biggest concern right now,” Scott added. “If you’re in the Jacksonville area, you still have about an hour to evacuate, so do it if you have a chance to evacuate. I don’t want anybody to be around the storm surge.”
Thursday, Scott urged coastal residents to move to safe ground, warning, “This storm will kill you.”
Some 3.1 million people were told to evacuate in three states. The National Weather Service in Jacksonville warned residents that “catastrophic damage” is anticipated for coastal areas and areas along the St. John’s River.
The governors of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have declared states of emergency. Officials in three of those states have urged coastal residents to head inland as the most powerful Atlantic storm in more than a decade continued on its path along the coast.
Hurricane Matthew has caused major transportation disruptions for much of the U.S. Nearly 4,000 flights were canceled from Wednesday to Friday due to the storm’s dangerous winds. Amtrak suspended services in the southeast because of the severe weather. No alternate transportation will be provided, the railroad said.
Motorists clogged highways, homeowners boarded up windows, and anxious shoppers lined up at grocery stores and gas stations this week as they stocked up on emergency supplies in the threatened coastal areas ahead of the storm.
Matthew’s forecast track showed the hurricane possibly weakening as it moved closer to the Florida shoreline on Friday.
No other Atlantic storm on record has packed such powerful winds for such a prolonged period as Hurricane Matthew, ABC News meteorologists said.
More than 377,000 people were evacuated in Cuba as Hurricane Matthew approached the Caribbean island earlier this week, according to the United Nations. And in Haiti, at least 350,000 people are in need of immediate assistance. There were reports of a powerful storm surge, violent winds and widespread flooding.
The storm caused some 120 confirmed deaths in Haiti but officials said the total could be significantly higher.
The National Hurricane Center downgraded the storm to a Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph winds at 2 a.m. ET on Friday.
More than 513,000 customers lost power across the state as of Friday.
Hurricane warnings covered hundreds of miles of Florida’s east coast from just south of the city of Jupiter to the state line. A major hurricane has not struck Florida in over a decade.
Schools across most of the state were closed for the rest of the week as the governor deployed 3,500 National Guard troops to assist in storm preparations. More than 1.5 million Floridians were ordered to evacuate.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. There were 22,000 people in our shelters,” Scott told GMA on Friday.
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal ordered mandatory evacuations east of I-95, along the entire Georgia coast, which covers beach spots including Tybee Island and Brunswick. About 522,000 people were urged to evacuate.
“I also encourage the voluntary evacuation of residents in low-lying coastal areas west of I-95,” Deal said in a prepared statement on Thursday. “I urge Georgians in the affected areas to remain calm, be prepared and make informed, responsible decisions as we continue to monitor Hurricane Matthew’s path.”
Deal said that 125 miles of roadway have been made one-way routes to ease evacuations and that 65 National Guardsmen have been deployed to help with traffic. He said he hopes residents will heed the warnings.
“We are being cautious, but we don’t want people to panic,” he said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “I don’t intend to prosecute anyone for not leaving. I think Mother Nature will take care of them.”
Deal told later reporters Thursday night, “This is not Southern hospitality we are inviting to Matthew — we hope he leaves as soon as possible.”
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday announced plans for additional evacuations, bringing the total to about 1.1 million people ordered to move from coastal areas.
Haley also urged residents to “fuel up quickly” and stock up on supplies before gas stations, pharmacies and grocery stores close. Most of the state’s public schools and government officers are shuttered for the remainder of the week.
“Residents that don’t leave today will realize that nothing is open,” she said.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for all of the state’s 100 counties on Thursday.
“This declaration will allow us to use further resources throughout the state to assist with the storm response here at home and to our neighboring states to the south,” the governor said in a statement.
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