Category 4 Matthew heads for Bahamas and Florida; hurricane watch issued

MIAMI, Oct. 4 (UPI) — “Extremely dangerous” Category 4 Hurricane Matthew is moving north toward Cuba, the Bahamas and Florida, where the National Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane watch for much of the state‘s Atlantic coast.

Matthew made landfall near Les Anglais in western Haiti at 7 a.m. Tuesday with 145 mph winds and torrential rains. The National Hurricane Center says Matthew strengthened afterward to 150 mph winds with gusts up to 175 mph late Tuesday morning, making it the most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007. Matthew is now back to 145 mph winds but has gusts to 180 mph. Weather officials in eastern Cuba already report tropical-storm conditions there.

A hurricane watch is in effect from Deerfield Beach, Fla., to the Volusia/Brevard county line. A tropical storm watch is in effect from the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys to south of Deerfield Beach, including Lake Okeechobee inland.

Hurricane warnings were in effect for Haiti; Cuba’s Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Granma, and Las Tunas provinces; and all of the Bahamas.

Storm surge is expected to range from 7-11 feet above tide on the south coast of eastern Cuba to 10-15 feet in the Bahamas. Surge is expected to be minimal in Florida – 1-3 feet above tide – since Matthew is not heading directly into the coastline there.

Another storm formed Tuesday – Tropical Storm Nicole – with 50 mph winds in the open Atlantic between Puerto Rico and Bermuda. It is forecast to head slowly north-northwest toward Bermuda before abruptly turning south on Friday, then west on Friday. Confidence is not high in what the storm will do late in the current forecast and beyond, but it is currently no threat to land.

Forecasters are also watching yet another weather system east of the Lesser Antilles, giving it a 20 percent chance of developing into a tropical cyclone in the next five days as it moves into the Caribbean, following a path similar to Matthew’s beginnings.

The NHC warns that outdoor preparation for Hurricane Matthew will be difficult or dangerous in Haiti, eastern Cuba and the southeastern Bahamas on Tuesday. Floridians should make preparations as soon as possible, especially those who live on the immediate coast in the hurricane watch area.

With 48 hours to go before tropical storm winds are expected to arrive, South Florida residents began piling into grocery stores and gas stations to stock up mid-day Tuesday. Forecasters urge everyone in the hurricane watch zone to make final preparations by Wednesday night, because conditions could be too dangerous for outdoor prep and driving after Thursday morning.

Everglades National Park officials said the park would close at 5 p.m. Tuesday and remain so until after Matthew has passed and the park was safe to enter. President Obama postponed a Hillary Clinton campaign rally at Florida Memorial University near Miami scheduled for Wednesday.

Matthew is forecast to track close to Florida’s Atlantic coast Thursday and Friday as a “major” Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 mph and gusts to 160 mph, weakening slightly to Category 3 with 125 mph winds as it moves north. The latest computer tracks have shifted the storm east, a bit farther off Florida’s coast, but hurricane-force winds now cover a larger area – 60 miles from the eye, up from 40 miles Tuesday morning. Models had been shifting Matthew’s track to the west over the last 24 hours.

Though Florida will be on the storm’s weakest side, residents should expect tropical storm conditions with strong winds and torrential rains beginning as early as Thursday morning. Long-range forecasts now show the storm making a turn to the northeast Friday with landfall as a Category 2 storm near the North Carolina-South Carolina state line Saturday morning.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency across all counties in the state, while North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory activated a state of emergency for 66 counties.

Meteorologists warned evacuations in the Southeast U.S. were a possibility.

The U.S. Coast Guard on Monday urged shippers in Port Miami, Miami River, Port Everglades, Port of Palm Beach, Port of Ft. Pierce and all other South Florida terminals to depart for safer ports.

“Mariners are reminded there are no safe havens in these facilities, and ports are safest when the inventory of vessels is at a minimum,” the U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement. “All oceangoing commercial vessels and oceangoing barges greater than 500 gross tons should make plans for departing the port.”

The U.S. Coast Guard warns boat owners in the region to make preparations as soon as possible.

The center of Matthew was 55 miles south-southwest of Cuba’s eastern tip Tuesday afternoon, moving north at 10 mph. It is expected to move over the Bahamas Tuesday night and Wednesday. Hurricane-force winds now extend up to 60 miles from Matthew’s center and tropical storm-force winds extend up to 185 miles out.

Matthew is expected to drop 15-25 inches of rain in southern Haiti and southwestern Dominican Republic, with isolated areas getting 40 inches. Up to a foot of rain is forecast for eastern Cuba and northwestern Haiti, with up to 20 inches in some areas. Areas of Florida under tropical storm watch can expect 1-5 inches of rain, while the hurricane watch area to the north can expect 4-10 inches, according to the NHC.

“Life-threatening flash floods and mudslides are likely from this rainfall,” the NHC added.

This is a developing story. Check back throughout the day for the latest updates.

Composite radar animation courtesy of Brian McNoldy, University of Miami, Rosenstiel School.

Infrared satellite animation shows Hurricane Matthew’s updated position and movement.

Visible satellite animation of Hurricane Matthew, updated every 30 minutes.

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