Florida spared worst of Hurricane Matthew but deadly menace still looms

Hurricane Matthew lost some of its might early on Friday after a long and punishing overnight crawl up Florida’s eastern coast, but authorities warned the deadly storm was still capable of causing destruction and loss of life as it continued to menace central and northern parts of the state and set its sights on Georgia.

“We’re only halfway through,” the Florida governor, Rick Scott, said at a morning briefing, as Matthew, now a category 3 storm with wind gusts of 150mph, edged closer to Jacksonville.

“We still have a long way to go. It could be the worst part of this is still to come. The eye has not made direct landfall, [but] it still has time to make a direct hit.”

Scott said assessments from more southerly parts of Florida, which were battered overnight by tropical storm force winds, were just beginning to come in, but earlier fears of potentially catastrophic damage appeared to be unfounded.

More than 600,000 houses were without power, he said, and 22,000 people remained in 145 shelters across the state.

The NHC acknowledged that Matthew’s failure to make landfall in Florida, and its position farther out to sea than initially predicted, had spared the state the kind of damage a direct hit would have wrought.

“We have been very fortunate that Matthew’s category 3 winds have remained a short distance offshore of the Florida coast so far, but this should not be a reason to let down our guard,” senior hurricane specialist Lixion Avila wrote in his advisory. He reported that Matthew’s central eye was no longer very distinct and that the storm would continue to weaken at a faster pace within 24 hours as wind shear increased. Over the next day and a half, he added, Matthew would begin to move more to the north and north-east.

“The weather is just starting to go downhill in northern Florida and the Georgia coastline,” said Dr Rick Knabb, the NHC director.

Waves flood Florida beachfront properties as Hurricane Matthew hits

“If you are in an area that’s been told to evacuate and your authorities are telling you that you still have time to evacuate, I want to personally plead with you to get out right now. Don’t wait one more moment, save yourself, save your family, save your friends. Don’t be part of the history of this hurricane that might include a long list of fatalities in the US due to water.”

Significantly, the NHC is predicting for the first time that the storm will degenerate into a tropical depression at the end of its five-day forecast period, reversing earlier projections that Matthew would loop back on itself and line up a second assault on the south Florida coast as a weak hurricane or tropical storm early next week.

As the death toll from Matthew’s journey across Haiti earlier in the week continued to grow close to 500, the first storm-related fatality in Florida was reported in St Lucie county, a 58-year-old woman dying from a suspected heart attack when fire rescue service was suspended at the height of the storm.

Late on Thursday and early Friday, Matthew continued to lash Volusia and Brevard counties in Florida, including the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, with torrential rain and sustained winds as the storm’s outer eyewall nudged parallel to the coast. Nasa reported limited roof damage from 107mph gusts, but no effect to its launchpads, which are constructed to withstand 125mph winds.

Downed power lines and fallen trees appeared to be the worst of the damage in Martin and St Lucie counties to the south. Bill Snyder, the Martin County sheriff, said he believed his county had “dodged a bullet”.

Seminole mobile home park resident Laura Molls inspects her damaged car under a tree in Fort Pierce, Florida, on Friday.
Seminole mobile home park resident Laura Molls inspects her damaged car under a tree in Fort Pierce, Florida, on Friday. Photograph: Cristobal Herrera/EPA

“This could have been much worse,” he said. “It’s going to be a busy day but we are in good shape and God has truly blessed our area.”

Scott, however, said he was alarmed by the storm moving closer to Jacksonville, where the National Weather Service had warned of a “worst-case” flooding scenario. “I’m really concerned about Jacksonville, I’m really concerned about Nassau [county],” he said. “Jacksonville has a lot of low-lying areas and there is concern of significant flooding there.”

More than 2 million people living in coastal and flood-prone areas of Florida, Georgia and South and North Carolina were urged to evacuate as the storm approached on Thursday, and the governors of all four states declared states of emergency. Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Georgia on Friday, the day after doing the same for 28 coastal Florida counties, freeing up federal resources for recovery efforts.

Officials were preparing for a storm surge of 6-10ft in South Carolina and were continuing evacuations from coastal communities ahead of the storm’s arrival. In its morning advisory, the NHC said Matthew would have weakened to a minor hurricane strength by then, with its shrinking wind field The Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, issued a statement urging residents to stay safe during and after the storm.

“My thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the path of Hurricane Matthew, and my heart is broken for the victims and their families in Haiti, Cuba, the Caribbean and Florida,” she said.

“Stay safe and know that America is with you. In times of disaster we pull together.”

The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, tweeted: “Thoughts & prayers with the millions of people in the path of Hurricane Matthew. Look out for neighbors, and listen to your local officials.”

In Orlando, where hotel rooms were scarce following the evacuation of thousands from coastal areas 60 miles east, theme parks were preparing to reopen on Saturday . Disney World closed on Friday due to weather for only the fourth time in its 45-year history.


Richard Luscombe

The GuardianTramp

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