Florida governor warns Hurricane Matthew 'is going to kill people'

Storm starts lashing Florida coast and is expected to approach Palm Beach with wind gusts of up to 165mph, as death toll in Haiti climbs to more than 100

Hurricane Matthew began lashing Florida’s east coast on Thursday afternoon and evening as the state’s governor, Rick Scott, warned that lives would be lost and neighbourhoods could be wiped out by one of the most powerful storms in living memory.

“Unfortunately, this is going to kill people,” Scott said of the category 4 hurricane that forecasters said was expected to approach Palm Beach with wind gusts of up to 165mph stretching up to 65 miles from its centre.

Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for 28 Florida coastal counties in Matthew’s path, freeing federal resources for disaster relief and recovery efforts, Scott’s office announced. The governor had criticized the president in September for being slow to sign a similar declaration for the six counties affected by Hurricane Hermine’s strike on Florida’s panhandle.

Matthew set its sights on Florida even as the death toll from the storm’s earlier path through Haiti continued to climb on Thursday, with at least 136 people killed by flying debris, falling trees and mudslides. Matthew also claimed at least four lives in the Dominican Republic, and spent most of Wednesday night and Thursday morning battering the islands of the Bahamas.

hurricane matthew tracker

Scott said loss of life was also a significant worry in Florida. “This is either going to have a direct hit or come right along our coast and we’re going to have hurricane-force winds,” he said at a morning meeting of the state’s emergency planners.

“This is serious. If you’re on the east coast from Palm Beach northwards you’re likely to see wind from 100-150 mph. Just think about that. These catastrophic levels can completely wipe out well-built homes and destroy neighbourhoods.”

He said more than 6,000 national guard troops were activated or on standby to assist with evacuations and rescue efforts.

Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC), confirmed Scott’s assessment on Thursday evening. “The worst of the conditions will be north of Palm Beach, northward from there all the way up through the Georgia and South Carolina coast later tonight, through Friday and into Saturday,” he said.

Weather.com reported that no category 4 storm had struck anywhere in northern Florida or Georgia since 1898. The National Weather Service in Melbourne, Florida, meanwhile, echoed Scott’s grim warnings for Florida. “Widespread extensive to devastating impacts will be felt,” it said in a statement.

“Airborne debris lofted by extreme winds will be capable of breaching structures, unprotected windows and vehicles. Effects such as these ranging from the coast to well inland have not been experienced in central Florida for decades.”

More than 1.5 million Floridians living along the coast and in vulnerable low-lying areas, and another half million residents of Georgia and South Carolina, were ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm’s arrival. Florida Power and Light, the state’s largest electricity supplier, reported Thursday afternoon that more than 13,000 customers lost power in southern Florida as Matthew’s outer rain and wind bands came ashore and weather conditions deteriorated quickly.

“There are no excuses, you need to leave. Evacuate. Evacuate. Evacuate,” he said, advising those who stayed that their lives were in danger. “Are you willing to risk your life, are you willing to take a gamble? That’s what you’re doing.”

Dozens of emergency shelters opened in counties from Miami-Dade in the south to Nassau in the north, and roads leading away from coastal towns in northern Florida and Georgia quickly became clogged.

Despite the warnings to evacuate, a number of surfers took to the sea at Hollywood Beach near Fort Lauderdale early on Thursday to experience the rough waves.

“This storm is coming. Get out of the water and get home where you should be,” said Gregory May of the Fort Lauderdale fire rescue department.

The NHC reported that Matthew had strengthened significantly on its path through the Bahamas and a potential landfall on the central or northern Florida coast, which would make it the first major hurricane to strike Florida since Wilma in 2005. According to weather.com, no category 4 storm has struck anywhere in northern Florida or Georgia since 1898.

Haiti devastated by Hurricane Matthew – drone video

With sustained winds of 140mph, and tropical storm-force winds of up to 74mph stretching a further 160 miles from its core, Matthew’s devastation threatened to reach far inland in Florida, even as the predicted path for the storm’s centre stayed just offshore.

“There are so many hazards that extend so far away from a hurricane that we cannot presume that just because the centre of circulation is not over our house we can’t be the centre of action for inland flooding and hurricane-force winds,” said Dr Rick Knabb, the NHC director.

Most theme parks in Orlando, 60 miles from Florida’s east coast, announced they would be closed on Friday, with Disney set to make a decision on weekend opening later in the day.

“We have 15 million visitors each year and there are a significant amount with us now,” said Marty Kiar, mayor of Broward County.

“Our visitors’ health and safety is just as important as our residents’ health and safety. If you are in a hotel and you feel safe stay there, if you’re going to one of our shelters, go there and if you have family and friends go there. Now is the time to hunker down for the storm and get off the roads,” he said.

Although earlier fears of a direct hit to southern Florida failed to materialize, Matthew’s projected path north over the next 36 hours continued to hug the eastern Florida coast towards Georgia, and in its 5pm advisory the NHC extended hurricane warnings north to South Santee River, South Carolina.

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley ordered residents of Horry and Georgetown counties, close to the North Carolina border to evacuate, and the NWS warned that flooding in downtown Charleston could be even worse than the historic flooding of October 2015.

Pat McCrory, the North Carolina governor, meanwhile extended an existing emergency declaration to all 100 counties in the state.

In the longer term, Matthew was expected to weaken to a category 2 hurricane during Saturday, and eventually downgrade to a tropical storm early next week before making a south-easterly loop back for another assault on Florida.

Contributor

Richard Luscombe in Miami

The GuardianTramp

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