Last Updated Oct 7, 2016 9:53 AM EDT
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Hurricane Matthew’s howling wind and driving rain pummeled Florida early Friday, starting what’s expected to be a ruinous, days-long battering of the Southeast coast. The strongest winds were barely offshore, but Matthew’s wrath still menaced hundreds of miles of coastline -- and a “life-threatening” storm surge was feared.
At dawn, the National Hurricane Center, in Miami, said the western edge of Matthew’s eye wall was “brushing” Cape Canaveral. The center warned that, “Frequent destructive wind gusts to around 115 mph will spread across the Cape Canaveral area, producing swaths of tornado-like damage.”
Matthew weakened slightly early Friday morning from a Category 4 to a Category 3 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph, but higher gusts. The Hurricane Center said Matthew is expected to weaken somewhat Friday and Saturday but remain a powerful hurricane as it stayed at Florida’s Atlantic coast.
As of 8 a.m. EDT Friday, the hurricane was hugging the coast of central Florida. Matthew was centered about 35 miles north-northeast of Cape Canaveral and moving north-northwest around 13 mph.
Governor Rick Scott said that about 600,000 homes and businesses were without power and more outages were likely. That number grew steadily overnight.
At 2 a.m., the Hurricane Center warned of “a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida east coast, the Georgia coast, and the South Carolina coast.”
Forecasters said Matthew could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more. They said the major threat to the Southeast wouldn’t be the winds -- which newer buildings can withstand -- but the massive surge of seawater that could wash over coastal communities along a 500-mile stretch from South Florida to the Charleston, South Carolina, area.
Two million people wereas the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade charged toward Florida. Matthew left .
Government hurricane tracking pilots tweeted dramatic video early Friday of a Thursday flight into the teeth of the storm, when it was still a Category 4:
On the forecast track, the center of Matthew will be moving near or over Florida’s Atlantic coast through the Thursday-into-Friday overnight period and near or over the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina Saturday. Forecasters said it would then probably veer out to sea -- and perhaps even loop back toward Florida in the middle of next week, though as a tropical storm.
The Hurricane Center said that, as of 7 a.m., Matthew was moving parallel to and barely off Florida’s east coast. It was roughly 35 miles east-northeast of Cape Canaveral, some 70 miles southeast of Daytona Beach and moving north-northwest at 14 mph.
With hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 60 miles, Matthew was capable of wreaking havoc along the coast even if its center stayed mostly offshore.
That prompted an overnight tweet from Florida Gov. Rick Scott:
“This storm’s a monster,” Scott warned as Matthew started lashing the state around nightfall Thursday. “I’m going to pray for everybody’s safety.”
As Matthew approached, the winds picked up along Vero Beach, midway between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral, stripping away palm fronds, ripping awnings and blowing sand that stung the face. Waves crashed on the beach, and rain came in short bursts.
Shortly after midnight, Brevard County, Florida, which includes Melbourne, tweeted that conditions had gotten very bad:
As it moved north Thursday 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.
Millions of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were told to evacuate their homes, and interstate highways were turned into one-way routes to speed the exodus. Florida alone accounted for about 1.5 million of those told to clear out.
“The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida,” the governor warned.
President Obama declared a state of emergency for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, 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. Palm Beach International Airport reported a wind gust of 50 mph with the center of the storm 70 miles offshore, the National Hurricane Center said. Airlines canceled more than 3,000 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.
Orlando’s world-famous theme parks - Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld - all closed.
“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.
Thousands of people hunkered down in schools converted to shelters, and inland hotels in places such as Charlotte, North Carolina, reported brisk business.
At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA no longer has to worry about rolling space shuttles back from the launch pad to the hangar because of hurricanes, since the shuttle fleet is now retired. But spaceflight company SpaceX was concerned about the storm’s effect on its leased seaside pad.
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.
The coordinator for Haiti’s Interior Ministry in the area hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew said the confirmed death toll in that southwestern zone was 283. Emmanuel Pierre told The Associated Press late Thursday he expects the toll to rise as authorities reach remote places that were left isolated by the storm. The Reuters news service put the toll at over 330.
Bodies started to appear as waters recede in some areas two days after Matthew smashed concrete walls, flattened palm trees and tore roofs off homes.
many downed trees and power lines but no immediate deaths.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered an evacuation of the entire Georgia coast, covering more than a half-million people. It was the first hurricane evacuation along the Georgia coast since 1999, when the state 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.”
Some coastal residents in Georgia and beyond decided to take their chances and stay.
Darcy O’Connor, a restaurant owner who lives in a rowhouse in Savannah, Georgia, a historic city of many beautifully maintained homes from the 18th and 19th century, said she and most of her neighbors were sticking around.
O’Connor noted that her home, built in 1883, has weathered hurricanes before: “Half the windows, if you look, still have the original glass. So that tells you something.”