Monster storm closes in on Fla.
As Matthew death toll hits 16, over 2M urged to flee
MELBOURNE BEACH, Fla. — Hurricane Matthew marched toward Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas and more than 2 million people along the coast were urged to evacuate their homes Wednesday, a mass exodus ahead of a major storm packing power the U.S. hasn’t seen in more than a decade.
Matthew was a lifethreatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph as it passed through the Bahamas, and it was expected to be near Florida’s Atlantic coast by late Thursday.
At least 16 deaths were blamed on the storm during its weeklong march across the Caribbean, 10 of them in Haiti. But with a key bridge washed out, roads impassable and phone communications down, the western tip of Haiti remained cut off a day after Matthew made landfall.
Marie Alta Jean-Baptiste, director of the Civil Protection Agency, said authorities so far have found 3,214 destroyed homes.
After moving past Haiti, Matthew rolled across the eastern tip of Cuba, destroying dozens of homes in the city of Baracoa and damaging hundreds more.
People stood amid the rubble of their homes, weeping, hugging or staring into the distance.
“I’ve never seen some- James Balboni fills a generator with gasoline Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in preparation for Hurricane Matthew. thing like this in my life,” said Elva Perez, 55, a homemaker as she stood by what remained of her home. “For more than 200 years, here in this house, nothing like this has ever happened.”
At the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, the storm knocked down trees and caused road flooding but no injuries or major damage, said Julie Ripley, a spokeswoman.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott flew around the state and met with emergency managers to repeat warnings.
In briefings throughout the day, he urged residents on barrier islands prone to flooding to evacuate and not wait until the storm hits. “This is a dangerous storm. It is never too early to evacuate,” he said.
Emergencies have been declared in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Florida urged 1.5 million residents to evacuate. Georgia ordered a voluntary evacuation where more than 522,000 people live. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley ordered an evacuation of counties on the coast, amounting to about 500,000.
“Our goal is to make sure you get 100 miles away from the coast,” Haley said.
Meanwhile, several U.S. carriers canceled or waived change fees in anticipation of the hurricane.
American Airlines canceled all Thursday flights into Miami International, Fort Lauderdale- Hollywood International and Palm Beach International airports. United Airlines said it anticipates canceling roughly 60 flights in and out of the airports.
Delta and JetBlue said they were allowing people to change flights scheduled in the coming days through much of the Southeast as well as the Bahamas and Caribbean.
In Melbourne Beach, near the Kennedy Space Center, Carlos and April Medina moved 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 way we see it, if it maintains its current path, we get tropical stormstrength winds. If it makes a little shift to the left, it could be a Category 2 or 3, and I don’t want to be anywhere near it,” Carlos Medina said. “We are just being a little safe, a little bit more cautious.”
The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the country was Wilma in October 2005. It made landfall with 120 mph winds in southwest Florida, killing five people. It caused an estimated $21 billion in damage and left thousands of residents without power for more than a week.
Matthew was centered about 165 miles southsoutheast of Nassau in the eastern Bahamas. It was heading northwest at 12 mph.
“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 areas.
President Barack Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters Wednesday in Washington to be briefed on preparations.
He warned the storm “could have a devastating effect” even in areas spared the full force of the hurricane, and asked residents to pay attention to local leaders and follow evacuation orders.