MIAMI (CBSNewYork/AP) — Hurricane Matthew pelted Florida with heavy rains as the deadly storm steamed ever closer to the coast with potentially catastrophic winds of 130 mph Thursday. Two million people across the Southeast were warned to flee inland.
It was the most powerful storm to threaten the U.S. Atlantic coast in more than a decade, and had already left more than 280 dead in its wake across the Caribbean.
According to the Haitian Interior Ministry, the hurricane claimed the lives of 283 people. CBS2’s Alice Gainer reports the widespread damage prompted the Haitian government to suspend Sunday’s presidential election.
“This storm’s a monster,” Gov. Rick Scott warned as it started lashing the state with periodic heavy rains and squalls around nightfall. He added: “I’m going to pray for everybody’s safety.”
As it moved north in the evening, Matthew stayed about 100 miles or more off South Florida, sparing the 4.4 million people in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas from its most punishing effects.
“We were lucky this time,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
By Thursday night, more than 80,000 homes and businesses were without power. Streets in Vero Beach were partially covered with water, and hotel guests in Orlando were told to stay inside, though a few sneaked out to smoke or watch the rain.
The lobby of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort was crowded with people and pets, including dogs occasionally snapping at each other. Some meals were served buffet style while other people waited more than 2 hours for a pizza delivery.
The hurricane was expected to blow ashore — or come dangerously close to doing so — early Friday north of Palm Beach County, which has about 1.4 million people, and then slowly push north for the next 12 hours along the Interstate 95 corridor, through Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida,” the governor warned.
Forecasters said it would then probably hug the coast of Georgia and South Carolina over the weekend before veering out to sea — perhaps even looping back toward Florida in the middle of next week as a tropical storm.
CBS2’s Lonnie Quinn reports that the latest data from the National Hurricane Center shows Matthew is staying just offshore from the coastlines. The western side of the hurricane is not as strong as the eastern side. CBS2’s Quinn reports we may not get a landfall with this storm.
Daniel Myras, who has lived for 25 years in Daytona Beach, where he owns the Cruisin Cafe two blocks from the boardwalk, struggled to find enough plywood to protect his restaurant.
“We’re not going to take any chances on this one,” he said.
He added: “A lot of people here, they laugh, and say they’ve been through storms before and they’re not worried. But I think this is the one that’s going to give us a wake-up call.”
Ken Aquino, who lives in the coastal town of Port Orange, told CBS2’s Don Champion he is on the fence about riding out the storm in the house he built.
“Just in case I have the opportunity to repair the home in case something happens. At least I have a chance to salvage the home,” Aquino said.
Retired firefighter Gary Sedacca said residents who stay behind do so at their own risk.
“When it gets bad and people call 911, people don’t leave the firehouse, they wait till after,” Sedacca said as he took his boat out of the water.
Universal and Walt Disney World both planned to close down at 5 p.m. Thursday, with SeaWorld shutting its gates at 2 p.m. The parks are among the most-visited tourist destinations in the world.
President Barack Obama declared states of emergency for Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, freeing up federal money and personnel to protect lives and property.
The Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and the Orlando airport planned to do so as well. Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights Thursday and Friday, many of them in or out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Amtrak suspended train service between Miami and New York, and cruise lines rerouted ships to avoid the storm, which in some cases will mean more days at sea.
In inland Orlando, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld announced plans to close early.
“I never get time off. I’m a little sad,” tourist Amber Klinkel, 25, of Battle Creek, Michigan, lamented at Universal.
Patients were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Hotels inland in places such as Charlotte, North Carolina, reported brisk business.
Forecasters said Matthew’s fiercest winds appeared unlikely to strike Miami or Fort Lauderdale, the most densely populated areas in Florida, with about 4.4 million residents. Those cities were expected to get tropical storm-force winds of between 39 mph and 73 mph.
Instead, forecasters said the West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral areas farther north could get the brunt of the storm. More than 1.3 million people live in Palm Beach County and about 568,000 in Brevard County, home to Cape Canaveral and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the U.S. was Wilma in October 2005. It sliced across Florida with 120 mph winds, killing five people and causing an estimated $21 billion in damage.
As people hurried to higher ground, authorities in South Carolina said a motorist died on Wednesday after being shot by deputies in a gun battle that erupted when he sped away from a checkpoint along a storm evacuation route.
Matthew killed at least 114 people as it roared through the Caribbean. Officials said at least 108 of those deaths were in desperately poor Haiti, where many towns were cut off by the storm and the magnitude of the disaster was just beginning to come into focus two days later.
In the Bahamas, authorities reported many downed trees and power lines but no immediate deaths.
As of 11 p.m. EDT, Matthew was about 125 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral, moving toward the northwest at about 13 mph. With hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 60 miles, Matthew could wreak havoc along the coast even if its center stayed offshore.
Forecasters said it could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet.
They said the major threat to the Southeast would not be the punishing winds — which newer buildings can withstand — but the massive surge of seawater that could wash over coastal communities.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said life-threatening flooding could happen along some 500 miles of coastline from Boca Raton in South Florida all the way to the Charleston, South Carolina, area.
Some coastal residents decided to take their chances and stay.
Deborah Whyte walked her dogs at Florida’s Jupiter Beach Park to get a look at the surf.
“We boarded up our house and I boarded up my store,” she said. “And we’re just hunkering down and waiting for it.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered a mandatory evacuation of the entire Georgia coast, covering more than a half-million people. The Georgia coast hasn’t seen a hurricane evacuation since 1999, when it narrowly escaped Floyd.
“We have a house that sits right here on the water and we kind of said goodbye to it thinking that, you know, the house … might not be here when we get back,” said Jennifer Banker, a resident of Georgia’s dangerously exposed St. Simons Island. “You know, we pray a lot and trust God to provide.”
Among the coastal communities in danger were two of the South’s most historic and handsome cities, with many beautifully maintained antebellum homes: Charleston, which got slammed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and Savannah, Georgia, which last took a direct hit from a major hurricane in 1898.
“Hurricane Matthew is a storm not to be messed with,” Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach said. “If you decide to ride it out, do not expect us to be there to help you.”
Travelers departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and Stewart and Atlantic City airports are also advised to check the status of their flight for any delays or cancellations due to the impending storm.
Airlines have now cancelled more than 4,000 flights Wednesday through Saturday in anticipation of the hurricane.
The New Jersey State Police and New York City’s Urban Search and Rescue team are going to Florida and Georgia, respectively, to assist following the hurricane.
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