Hurricane Matthew marched toward Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas and nearly 2 million people along the coast were urged to evacuate their homes Wednesday, a mass exodus ahead of a major storm packing power the United States hasn’t seen in more than a decade.
Hurricane Matthew was expected to miss Long Island and is not even a “peripheral threat” after its projected track shifted overnight, forecasters said Wednesday morning.
Matthew was a dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph as it passed through the Bahamas, and it was expected to be very near Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening. At least 16 deaths in the Caribbean have been blamed on the storm, with heavy damage reported in Haiti.
The storm was forecast to scrape much of the Florida coast and any slight deviation could mean landfall or it heading farther out to sea. Either way, it was going to be close enough to wreak havoc along the lower part of the East Coast, and many people weren’t taking any chances.
In Melbourne Beach, near the Kennedy Space Center, Carlos and April Medina moved their paddle board and kayak inside the garage and took pictures off the walls of their home about 500 feet from the coast. They moved the pool furniture inside, turned off the water, disconnected all electrical appliances and emptied their refrigerator.
They then hopped in a truck filled with legal documents, jewelry and a decorative carved shell that had once belonged to April Medina’s great-grandfather and headed west to Orlando, where they planned to ride out the storm with their daughter’s family.
The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the United States was Wilma in October 2005. It made landfall with 120 mph winds in southwest Florida, killing five people as it pushed through the Everglades and into the Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach area. It caused an estimated $21 billion in damage and left thousands of residents without power for more than a week. It concluded a two-year span when a record eight hurricanes hit the state.
As of 5 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Matthew was centered about 400 miles southeast of West Palm Beach and moving northwest, according to the National Hurricane Center. Hurricane-force winds extended 45 miles from the center.
“When a hurricane is forecast to take a track roughly parallel to a coastline, as Matthew is forecast to do from Florida through South Carolina, it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location,” said National Hurricane Center forecaster Lixion Avila.
Florida can expect as much as 10 inches of rain in some isolated areas.
In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley reversed the lanes of Interstate 26 so that all lanes of traffic were headed west and out of Charleston. It was the first time the lanes had been reversed. Plans to reverse the lanes were put in place after hourslong traffic jams during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
The governor planned to call for more evacuations on Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state. Florida urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast, said Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott. Georgia had around 50,000 people told to go.
With Candice Ferrette.