The strongest storm system to threaten the United States in a decade roared toward Florida on Thursday, forcing thousands from their homes and prompting dire warnings from forecasters and public officials alike.
Floridians hunkered down Thursday as pelting rain and punishing wind began to pummel the state, the first sting of a deadly hurricane expected to grind its way up the coast overnight and through most of the day Friday.
Gov. Rick Scott, R, repeatedly pleaded with residents to take the storm seriously, urging the 1.5 million Floridians in evacuation zones to leave and describing Hurricane Matthew in increasingly blunt terms as he tried to describe the peril.
“This is serious,” Scott said during one of his briefings Thursday. “This storm will kill you. Time is running out.”
Matthew tore through Haiti this week and caused nearly 300 deaths just in the southern part of that country, officials said, before pushing across the Bahamas and threatening to strafe a stretch of the East Coast that runs from South Florida to North Carolina.
All across the Southeastern United States, life’s normal routines gave way to the bedlam of a looming storm. Emergencies were declared, evacuations ordered, schools closed and scores of flights grounded. College football games were even canceled or postponed.
Authorities stressed the dangers of the storm, while the National Hurricane Center issued a series of foreboding bulletins warning of “potentially disastrous impacts for Florida” and “life-threatening” flooding over the coming days in that state as well as Georgia and the Carolinas. The National Weather Service warned that the gusting winds could leave some places “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
While the storm had weakened at one point during its journey, by Thursday it had surged to a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph.
As the rain began to fall in Florida, all eyes looked east as the unprecedented storm slowly approached. By early Saturday, hurricane conditions could extend into Georgia and South Carolina, the National Hurricane Center warned. More than 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders from Florida to South Carolina, most of them in Florida, where the state opened dozens of shelters to house them.
President Barack Obama signed emergency declarations for Florida and South Carolina, ordering federal aid and allowing federal authorities to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
Scott had already declared a state of emergency in Florida, as have his counterparts in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Obama spoke by telephone with all four governors Thursday to discuss preparations for the storm, saying he is committed to providing the federal resources needed to respond, the White House said.
Across the southeast, waves of schools shuttered their campuses and closed government offices. Colleges from Florida International University in Miami and the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, canceled classes, as did schools as far north as the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston.
The University of Florida called off its game against Louisiana State on Saturday, and Central Florida postponed a scheduled football game against Tulane. Other major college games scheduled over the weekend – in Columbia, South Carolina, and Miami – remained tentatively on the calendar as planned.
Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights set to travel through Florida’s airports on Thursday and Friday. Even mainstays of Florida life were impacted: Walt Disney World said it would close early on Thursday and remain closed Friday, as did SeaWorld in Orlando and Universal’s parks.
Floridians either fled their homes or huddled with supplies after making the customary last-minute trips to Publix for bottled water, bread and peanut butter. They gathered batteries and flashlights, erected plywood and lowered shutters. In some cases, people headed inland or to safer ground with friends or family, while others planned to have hurricane parties to pass the hours spent locked down.
Scott said Thursday he had activated more than 3,500 Florida National Guard members, but he told residents not to view them as an escape valve for anyone who decides not to evacuate.
“We should not be putting people’s lives at risk because you made the foolish decision not to evacuate,” he said during a briefing Thursday afternoon.
Interstate 95 through northern Florida appeared largely abandoned during the afternoon rush hour. Drivers heading away from Jacksonville, the south’s most populous city, heeded warnings from Scott and other officials that they had heard before.
“I wasn’t going to leave, but it is starting to look bad,” said Elaine Green, 68, a retired registered nurse, at a rest stop south of Jacksonville, where she lives near the beach. “This could be like all the other times. They always say evacuate, evacuate. … If it bad as they say, then, OK, I will be glad I left.”
In Jacksonville’s Riverside-Avondale neighborhood, west of downtown, residents talked over whether to leave with their neighbors.
“I’m getting the hell out of here,” said a tall, pony-tailed man stuffing loose clothes and towels and blankets into his Chevy SUV. “I’m packing up my dog and getting out of here.”
Forecasters warned of broad dangers posed by what they called a “life-threatening” storm, the first major hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. Last month, Hurricane Hermine had slammed into Florida’s Gulf Coast before it was quickly downgraded to a tropical storm.
Before the storm made it to Florida, the Bahamas took a punishing blow on Thursday after a slight wobble in the track kept Matthew’s strong inner core among the islands longer than expected. Matthew blasted Nassau with extreme wind gusts of at least 100 mph that toppled palm trees and ripped the roofs off homes. The wind was so strong that the country’s official weather stations went offline during the peak of the storm, making direct observations nearly impossible.
The hurricane appears to be without comparison in modern Florida history for eastern and central Florida, and could lead to multi-billion dollar damages across the state, according to the Capital Weather Gang. Florida Power and Light, the state’s utility, warned that up to 2.5 million people could lose power, and warned that some people could face “extended outages as we rebuild parts of the grid.”
The National Weather Service said gusting wind could have “possible devastating impacts” on the eastern coast of central Florida and outlined possible consequences: “Structural damage to sturdy buildings, with complete roof and wall failures. Complete destruction of mobile homes. Damage may greatly accentuated by large airborne projectiles.”
As people flooded the roads to get out of town, air travel was severely restricted by the looming storm. American Airlines canceled all flights Thursday through the three South Florida airports – in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach – as well as flights through Orlando’s airport after 5:30 p.m.
Delta, JetBlue and American Airlines all announced waivers allowing people to change flights traveling through the Southeast, Bahamas and Caribbean without paying any penalty.
Airlines canceled a combined 3,100 flights through the United States on Thursday and Friday, the bulk of them traveling through Florida, according to FlightAware.com.
At the Jacksonville airport on Thursday, Arnold Paredes, spent hours devising a way to get to Panama after his connection through Miami was canceled.
Lugging two large, red pieces of luggage and his wife, Sara, from airline counter to airline counter, he said his attempts had been frustrated by the storm.
“We planned this trip for a year,” said Arnold, 42, while his wife, who said she had given up before they left their home this morning, flipped through a magazine. “Vacation, to get away from everything.”
He planned to rent a car and head inland to find an open airport. “I am not ready to give up,” he said.
While Florida prepared for the country’s first brush with Matthew, other states were also getting ready for the storm to rake across their communities.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, R, had evacuated Charleston and Beaufort counties – home to more than half a million people – and on Thursday, she followed that by evacuating other residents in some of the state’s coastal areas. She also warned that more evacuations could follow.
Authorities in South Carolina also said that voters there would extend deadlines for voter registration, a move that came amid questions about how the storm would impact the upcoming presidential election.
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal, R, announced mandatory evacuations in six of the state’s coastal counties, a stretch east of Interstate 95 with more than 530,000 residents. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, R, said he remained “cautiously optimistic” about the hurricane’s projected impact on his state, but said residents were not in the clear yet and asked them to keep monitoring the storm.
On Wednesday, Obama had scrapped two planned events in Florida on Wednesday and visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters in Washington for a hurricane briefing instead. He urged residents to be ready and pay attention to warnings from authorities.
“I want to make sure that everybody is paying attention to your local officials,” he said during remarks after his briefing. “If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously. … [E]ven if you don’t get the full force of the hurricane, we are still going to be seeing tropical force winds, the potential for a storm surge, and all of that could have a devastating effect.”
The Floridians readying for the storm are a mix of veterans who have been through this before and those unaccustomed to the routines of amassing canned soup, plywood and flashlights. People who headed out to prepare found grocery aisles scraped clean of water and long lines at their local Home Depot.
At a Home Depot near Stirling Road in Hollywood, two employees secured seven sturdy pieces of plywood to the roof of black Hyundai sedan.
“It took us about three hours to get in and out,” Alex Ozenaski said outside a Home Depot in Hollywood while two employees secured plywood to the roof of his black Hyundai. “We had just moved to South Florida when Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005. We weren’t prepared. This time, we are almost prepared.”
This hurricane is life-threatening. Listen to your local officials and follow evacuation notices.
Jordan Guadalupe, an 18-year-old juice-maker, said he had lived in South Florida when Wilma hit and called that storm “devastating.”
On Wednesday, even as his family in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea put up shutters and bought sandbags, Guadalupe was worried about finding other supplies.
“We’re right by the ocean,” he said.
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