Hurricane Matthew stalked Florida’s east coast Friday morning, battering the Cape Canaveral area with fierce winds and threatening the state with life-threatening storm surges even though the powerful eyewall — for now — remained at sea.
The biggest questions remained as the sun rose: Will the storm make landfall? If so, where?
Matthew — a Category 3 storm with winds of 120 mph at the center — is teetering parallel to the peninsula and heading north-northwest, but still pounding Florida’s east-central coast with dangerous winds and heavy rain. Cape Canaveral recorded a 107 mph gust before 7 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said.
Weather experts were watching for the slightest change in Matthew’s unpredictable path, which they say could make an enormous difference to the hurricane’s impact on land.
“The exact path is so critical,” said CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam. “Miles and kilometers really count, because if it wobbles westward by say 30 miles, it brings those strong winds onshore.”
Matthew has taken out power for more than 363,000 customers in Florida. The downpour, storm surge and extreme winds are expected to hit central and northern sections of the Florida coast, including communities such as Daytona Beach and Jacksonville, according to the hurricane center.
Here’s what you need to know:
• As of 8 a.m. ET, Matthew was about 35 miles north-northeast of Cape Canaveral.
• Based on the latest projections, Matthew could make landfall in Florida as a Category 3 storm, or it could skirt the coast and head north before possibly heading back toward land.
• Forecasters predict a storm surge in parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina that could be as high as 11 feet, and as many as 15 inches of rain could fall from central Florida to North Carolina.
• The National Weather Service warned that some places hit by Matthew could be uninhabitable for “weeks or months.”
• The storm has killed at least 276 people in three Caribbean countries. The majority, 271 people, died in Haiti, said Civil Protection Service spokesman Joseph Edgard Celestin.
• Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who spent the better part of the past three days warning residents to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, described the storm as a “monster.”
• Many people left coastal areas, but others stayed, anxious to see how their area would stand up to the storm.
‘Massive destruction’ possible
Scott told those on the state’s Atlantic coast that the question is not whether they will lose power, but for how long.
A direct hit by Matthew, he said, could lead to “massive destruction” on a level unseen since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations in the state stretch from Miami to the Florida-Georgia border.
At least two counties are under curfew until 7 a.m. Saturday, officials announced. Orange and Volusia Counties on Thursday night instituted mandatory curfews. The curfews include Orlando and Daytona Beach.
Airline passengers were urged to call before leaving for the airport. Florida airports had canceled hundreds of flights, most of them in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. Fort Lauderdale closed its airport, airlines suspended operations in Miami, and Orlando’s airport closed Thursday evening.
Palm Beach residents cleared grocery store shelves ahead of the storm. Despite all the warnings, West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said not everyone is listening, even with mandatory evacuation orders in place.
Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina
As eastern Florida braced for impact, coastal communities in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina also were on notice. The storm’s center could be near or over the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday, the hurricane center said.
• Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency in 30 counties near the coast and ordered evacuations for all counties east of Interstate 95.
• Of special concern is Tybee Island, a low-lying island east of Savannah, which is also under mandatory evacuation orders.
• In Savannah, Mayor Eddie DeLoach warned those who stay that they’d be on their own.
• Cars packed highways as South Carolina residents fled coastal areas after officials gave mandatory evacuation orders for several counties. But as thousands fled inland, some people said they were staying put.
• Close to half a million people were expected to have evacuated by Thursday, said Kim Stenson, director of South Carolina Emergency Management.
• The South Carolina Department of Transportation changed the directions of eastbound traffic lanes on highways to accommodate the exodus of people leaving coastal cities like Charleston.
• Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for the entire state. So far, though, there’s been no official call to evacuate.
• Officials are concerned that eastern North Carolina areas that were recently flooded will see more rain from Matthew.
— CNN’s Derek Van Dam, Eliott McLaughlin, Dave Hennen, Sheena Jones, Max Blau, Holly Yan, Stephanie Elam, Rolando Zenteno, Keith Allen, Shawn Nottingham, Alexander Leininger, Tony Marco, Deborah Bloom, Devon M. Sayers, Nick Valencia, Sara Sidner, Jason Morris and Rosa Flores contributed to this report.