(MIAMI) — Hurricane Matthew is taking aim at the Florida coast, with vicious 130 mph winds, potentially devastating storm surges and flooding from rain, prompting mass evacuations and dire warnings from officials.
The category 4 storm was blamed for at least 122 deaths in Haiti, according to the director of Haiti’s Department of Civil Protection. There were also two people missing and 91 injured there.
Now, the deadly storm is heading toward the east coast of the Sunshine State after making landfall in the Bahamas with 130 mph winds, according to the National Hurricane Center. 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” as the outer bands of the storm lashed the state Thursday night.
“This storm will kill you,” Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference this morning, urging that “the time is now” to evacuate ahead of the Category 4 storm.
“This is life and death,” he added.
As of this afternoon, about 3.1 million people are under mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders 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.
Forecasters say that because the track of the storm is parallel to the coast “it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location,” the NWS said in its latest advisory at 2 p.m. Eastern time.
“Only a small deviation of the track to the left of the NHC forecast could bring the core of a major hurricane onshore within the hurricane warning area in Florida and Georgia,” the NWS said. “Modest deviations to the right could keep much of the hurricane-force winds offshore.”
President Barack Obama, at Scott’s request, today declared an emergency in Florida and ordered federal aid to supplement state, tribal and local response efforts. The move authorizes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate all disaster relief efforts.
Obama also signed a state of emergency declaration for South Carolina Thursday afternoon.
Others have echoed Obama’s and Scott’s urgency as the hurricane battered the Bahamas and strengthened over the warm waters of the Atlantic.
“The extreme winds of a major hurricane can do a lot of damage, and not just at the coast,” Rick Knabb, the director of the National Hurricane Center, told Good Morning America.
“Those winds can penetrate inland, and that would be more so the case the closer it gets to the coast,” he warned. “In addition to the wind, you have storm surge potential. People who have been told to evacuate. They need to get out this morning, right away, because time is running out fast. You don’t want to be caught in the storm surge, which is the deadliest hazard of all.”
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 to safer ground as the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade continued on its path northwest toward the United States.
Motorists clogged highways, homeowners boarded up windows, and anxious shoppers lined up at grocery stores and gas stations as they stocked up on emergency supplies in the threatened coastal areas.
Florida has about eight days worth of fuel for its citizens, Scott said, reminding them to “take only what you need.”
Matthew’s forecast track showed the hurricane making landfall or coming in close proximity of the shoreline on Friday morning.
The storm had weakened as it moved through the Caribbean but regained its strength.
If it makes landfall, Hurricane Matthew could be the strongest storm to hit the United States in more than a decade, ABC News meteorologists said.
“It is very rare to have a hurricane of this strength come this close or make landfall in the eastern part of central or northern Florida,” meteorologist Max Golembo said.
Up to 15 inches of rain may fall in some areas, and a storm surge of up to 11 feet was expected along the coast from central Florida to Georgia, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“There is a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida east coast and Georgia coast,” the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory issued today at 5 a.m. ET.
After a briefing with his homeland security team at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Obama told reporters Hurricane Matthew is “a serious storm, and we want everybody to take it seriously as well.”
“Just remember that you can always rebuild,” he said. “You can always repair property. You cannot restore a life if it is lost, and we want to make sure that we minimize any possible loss of life or risk to people in these areas.”
No other Atlantic storm on record has packed such powerful winds for such a prolonged period as Hurricane Matthew.
More than 377,000 people were evacuated in Cuba, 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.
Matthew bore down on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas Thursday morning, the country’s most populous island, which has not seen a major hurricane since 1929.
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