PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Hurricane Matthew edged ever closer to Florida Friday with torrential rains and up to 120 mile-an-hour winds after a blast through the Caribbean that reportedly left more than 300 dead in Haiti.
Matthew was downgraded to a Category Three storm early Friday by the National Hurricane Center, as its wind speed dropped slightly. But Florida still faced its most dangerous hurricane in living memory.
The storm was expected to strike the coast some time Friday morning, although it was not clear if it will be a direct hit or more of a sideswiping blow, which could still be catastrophic.
Over the course of the day Matthew could scour its way up a 600-mile (965-kilometer) strip of coast from Boca Raton in Florida to just north of Charleston, South Carolina, driving seawater and heavy rain inland.
Only a handful of hurricanes of this strength have ever made landfall in Florida, and none since 1898 has threatened to scythe its way north along the low-lying, densely populated coast into Georgia and beyond.
Evacuation orders were issued for areas covering some three million residents and major cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Savannah, Georgia lay in the path of the terrible storm.
Daytona Beach imposed a curfew that was to last until dawn on Saturday, and President Barack Obama declared emergencies in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, promising federal aid.
As the first bouts of heavy rain and powerful gusts arrived at seafront resorts presaging the storm beyond, more than 140,000 homes and businesses in Florida had lost power.
Matthew has already battered Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas and US officials are taking no chances, warning that loss of life is a virtual certainty.
“This storm is a monster,” declared Florida’s Governor Rick Scott. “I want everybody to survive this. We can rebuild homes. We can rebuild businesses… We can’t rebuild a life.”
As of 0600 GMT, the storm was about 45 miles east of Vero Beach — which is about a third of the way up the peninsula — and moving northwest at 14 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.
South Florida including Miami was thus spared the worst of the storm, after it took a slight turn to the north and east.
The storm will threaten Florida’s beaches and ports with ferocious, howling wind and storm surges of up to 11 feet.
“And when you get the wind you will get immediate flooding, strong rip current, beach erosion. The risk of tornados,” Scott warned.
“Think about this: 11 feet (3.3 meters) of possible storm surge. And on top of that, waves. So if you are close, you could have the storm surge and waves over your roof.”
Highways were jammed with people streaming inland to escape the storm, forecast to be strong enough to snap trees and blow away roofs or entire houses.
As US gas stations ran dry, frantic shoppers flocked to stores for batteries, transistor radios, bread, canned goods, bottled water, ice and pet food.
Poor and vulnerable Haiti remained essentially cut in half two days after Matthew hit, with routes to the devastated south blocked by flooding. Amid conflicting death tolls, a senator from the south, Herve Fourcand, said more than 300 people there had died.
At least four people — three of them children — were killed in Haiti’s neighbor the Dominican Republic and more than 36,500 were evacuated, with 3,000 homes destroyed, flooded or damaged.
The wealthier Bahamas, which had more time to prepare, was less badly hit and there were no reports of fatalities, but there were power outages, some roads were cut and there was property damage.
In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the normally bustling resort turned into a ghost town as tourists loaded up cars, cut short vacations and fled north.
Officials complained a worrying number of people were not heeding evacuation orders, and many communities set up storm shelters.
The county that includes Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center reported on Twitter that conditions had become too dangerous to respond to emergencies.
Meanwhile the fire service in St Augustine, northern Florida, issued a video message on Facebook warning that damage to the city was expected to be catastrophic and urged all holdouts to leave their homes.
“We as a city are evacuating,” said Fire Chief Carlos Aviles.
“If you are choosing to stay in St Augustine, you are choosing to do so at your own risk. There will be no public safety personnel to assist you.”
The largest shelter in the quaint beach city had reached its capacity of 500 people, and authorities turned frustrated residents back into the rain, pillows under their arms.
Miami International Airport canceled 90 percent of its incoming and outgoing flights on Thursday and Walt Disney World — in Orlando, 35 miles inland — was to stay shut on Friday.
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