CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (AP) — Hurricane Matthew has strengthened again to a Category 4 hurricane as of 11 a.m. today, with maximum sustained winds estimated by Air Force reconnaissance data to be 140 mph around the center of circulation as the major hurricanes continues northwest past Nassau, Bahamas.
The storm is heading northwest at 14 mph, taking aim on the Florida Atlantic coast beginning late today. The latest forecasting models have Matthew either making landfall near or north of Melbourne Florida, or grazing the coastline. Destructive winds and a storm surge of 5 to 9 feet are expected along and near the coast, from Florida northward to Georgia and the Carolinas, accompanied by rainfall in excess of 10 inches.
More than 11 million residents of Florida are under a hurricane warning, which now extends up to Edisto Beach, South Carolina.
The impact of the storm will extend far beyond the central track, with hurricane-force winds (in excess of 74 mph) reaching 40 miles beyond the eye, and tropical storm-force gusts (greater than 39 mph) at a distance of 160 mile surrounding the storm.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said the state, its skies already darkening from early outer rain bands of the life-threatening storm, could be facing its “biggest evacuation ever” as Matthew menaces almost all of the state’s Atlantic coast.
As people hurried for higher ground, authorities in South Carolina said a motorist died on Wednesday after being shot by deputies during an altercation along an evacuation route.
About 2 million people from Florida across Georgia to South Carolina were being encouraged to head inland and away from the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade. Matthew killed at least 16 people in the Caribbean as it sliced through Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas.
“This is a dangerous storm,” Scott warned. “The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida.”
Florida emergency officials said more than 3,000 people were already in 48 school-based shelters, mostly in coastal counties where evacuations both mandatory and voluntary were underway. Patients also were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Major theme parks in Orlando, central Florida, remained open but were monitoring events even as Walt Disney World canceled Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, a special ticket event scheduled Thursday night.
Deborah Whyte walked her dogs at Jupiter Beach Park on Thursday morning to check the surf.
“We boarded up our house and I boarded up my store” in Tequesta. “And we’re just hunkering down and waiting for it,” she said.
But others as far off as Georgia and South Carolina rushed to leave.
On Tybee Island, home to Georgia’s largest public beach, Loren Kook loaded up his pickup truck with suitcases and a computer late Wednesday afternoon to hit the road to metro Atlanta.
“It seems like a lot of the longtime residents are staying,” said Kook, who moved to the coast four years ago. “I’ve never sat through a Category Whatever. I’ll watch it on TV.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal had urged more than 522,000 residents of six vulnerable coastal counties to voluntarily evacuate. An evacuation hasn’t been seen in 17 years in coastal Georgia. Part of its coast was under a hurricane warning.
Officials at Florida’s major airports said Thursday that they are monitoring conditions as Matthew bears down on the state and warned of delays or cancellations. On its website, Fort Lauderdale International Airport announced plans to close at 10:30 a.m. Officials advised travelers to check with individual airlines about flight plans.