After leaving a path of destruction, death and devastation in Haiti, Hurricane Matthew, a dangerous Category 4 storm, is barreling toward Florida Thursday evening, threatening to bring strong winds, heavy rain and even tornadoes.
The death toll in Haiti from Hurricane Matthew has risen to 283 in hard-hit southwest, Haiti's Civil Protection Service said.
Hurricane Matthew made landfall in the island country Tuesday as a Category 4, destroying infrastructure, agriculture and houses. An estimated 350,000 people have been affected, with 15,623 displaced people living in shelters, according to officials. In southern Haiti, winds of 125 mph (200 kph) destroyed homes, flooded villages and cut off the island from the rest of the country.
Hurricane warnings and mandatory evacuations have been issued in parts of Florida and the Carolinas as residents in those states brace for Matthew's landfall.
Having weakened slightly earlier in the week, the storm regained strength and once again became a Category 4 Thursday after blowing past Haiti. A Category 4 means winds can be as strong as 130 to 156 mph, able to batter the coast and cause catastrophic damage.
As of Thursday afternoon, the storm is moving northwest at 14 mph, about 125 miles east of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Hurricane Matthew is capable of having disastrous impact across the eastern shore of Florida starting Friday, when it is expected to track right along the coastline and potentially make landfall somewhere between Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville. By Thursday night, hurricane-force winds could extend 40 to 50 miles inland as the storm moves along the coast.
Hurricane warnings have been issued from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and north toward Charleston, S.C. A tropical storm warning has been issued in areas south, toward the Florida Keys as well as sections of the Florida Gulf Coast.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned the 1.5 million residents living in evacuation zones to leave the area, and said the question is not whether they will lose power, but for how long. Power outages are to expected and could last for weeks.
"This is serious. ... If you need to evacuate and you haven't, evacuate. This storm will kill you. Time is running out. We don't have that much time left," Scott said.
People who stayed behind stocked up on supplies and boarded up windows, as there were numerous reports of county governments, schools, cruise lines and amusement parks closing. Many residents found long gas lines Wednesday. But so far, the state isn't running short on supplies, Scott said.
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 was slated to close at 8 p.m. Thursday, airport officials said.
Though Hurricane Matthew is a Category 4, it has the potential to hit Florida as a Category 5 with wind speeds of 130 to 145 mph near the center. As it interacts with land, it is expected to weaken to a Category 2 — meaning wind speed will clock in between 96 and 110 mph — while it heads southeast of Charleston, S.C. Saturday morning.
Hurricane-force winds are expected to approach East Central Florida as early as Friday evening and eventually move north toward South Carolina by early Saturday. The strongest winds will be along the coast, where winds can reach 100 mph but hurricane-force gusts could be felt as far as 50 miles inland.
Devastating storm surge could reach 7 to 11 feet ranging from Melbourne, Fla., all the way up to Charleston, S.C., more than 400 miles north.
Along with the waves pounding the shores, flooding due to heavy rain also is forecast. Expect 4 to 8 inches of rain, with totals as high as 12 inches possible. The storm surge could leave hundreds of thousands of communities without power and under water.
Rain bands could spin off a tornado at any time.
This is the first major hurricane to affect Florida since Wilma did in 2005. If Hurricane Matthew makes a direct hit on Florida, it could lead to "massive destruction" that hasn't been seen since 1992 when Hurricane Andrew made landfall.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for several counties in South Carolina. Close to half a million people were expected to have evacuated by Thursday, said Kim Stenson, director of South Carolina Emergency Management.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for more than half the state's 100 counties. So far, though, the governor has not urged residents to evacuate.
"We're just going to have to play it by ear and have our resources ready," the governor said.
Officials are concerned eastern North Carolina areas that were recently flooded will see more rain from Matthew.
The storm could make a loop off the coast and perhaps make a return to the southeast as a Tropical Storm some time next week. The track does not show it will hit the tri-state area.