The Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, told residents of the Sunshine State to prepare for a “devastating” onslaught from Hurricane Matthew which has already carved a deadly path across the Caribbean, ravaging parts of Haiti and eastern Cuba.
“Everyone must prepare now for a direct hit,” Governor Scott said at a press conference. After briefly weakening off Cuba, the storm appeared on Wednesday to be gathering new strength and even jogging a little westward, both indicating elevated danger for Florida as well as states to its north. Millions of Americans could affected this weekend and travel severely disrupted.
The Atlantic seaboard of Florida was bracing for the worst with evacuation orders already in place for some barrier islands and low-lying areas to the north of Palm Beach. Residents were also on the move along coastal South Carolina to the north, where Matthew threatened to be the most serious storm since Hurricane Hugo ravaged the state's coast in 1989.
“We must be prepared for a devastating hurricane; small track deviation could be catastrophic for our coast,” a grim Governor Scott told Floridians. “This is a dangerous storm and it's never too early to evacuate. If you live in a low-lying area or on a barrier island, go ahead and leave.”
It’s been more than ten years since Florida has faced a storm of such magnitude. That was in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina crossed the state before entering the Gulf of Mexico and later slamming New Orleans. Many in the south of the state still recall Hurricane Andrew in 1992 which roared ashore just south of Miami before essentially wiping out the town of Homestead.
As if the scientific data describing Matthew wasn't terrifying enough, some saw additional reason to take fright in a Nasa infrared image of the storm that evoked a human skull.
Briefly a Category 5 storm earlier in the week, Matthew had slowed to a somewhat less organized Category 3 event early Wednesday with sustained wins of 115 MPH. But it was showing signs of fresh power as it bore down on the southern Bahamas. Current tracking suggests it will reach the Florida peninsula by Thursday evening into Friday morning.
The increasingly urgent hurricane warnings had already prompted panic buying at some hardware and grocery chains in Florida as residents scrambled to get ready and protect their properties. Cars were queuing around the block for petrol at some stations in Miami.
In South Carolina, where Governor Nikki Haley had ordered a state of emergency, traffic was bumper-to-bumper on highways heading west from the historic city of Charleston and nearby coastal communities. The Governor had mobilised the National Guard to assist.
The scope of devastation in Haiti and Cuba was clearly major even if some details, including reliable death tolls for both countries, remained hard to come by, in part because of disrupted communications. But at least 11 deaths had been reported in both countries by Wednesday. It also appeared that in Haiti alone, 14,530 people have been displaced.
“It's the worst hurricane that I've seen during my life,“ Fidele Nicolas, a civil protection official in Nippes, told AP. ”It destroyed schools, roads, other structures.” The storm just skirted the eastern tip of Cuba, and the country may have dodged the worst.
Meteorologists predicted that Matthew would travel along the southern half of the eastern US into this weekend before turning east again and into the Atlantic, suggesting that the mid-Atlantic cities of Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York might be spared its wrath.
Disruptions from the storm were already being widely felt. President Barack Obama was forced to cancel a political event supporting Hillary Clinton in Miami. Meanwhile cruise ship companies were rushing to change schedules to keep vessels that sail out of Florida’s main ports out of danger. School was cancelled up and down the eastern Florida coast. In Orlando, Disney and other theme park owners warned their opening hours were likely to be changed.
Hurricane Matthew was expected to drop drenching rains and create dangerous storm surges of up to five feet, leading to extensive flooding in coastal areas.