Category 4 Hurricane Matthew heads for Florida; hurricane watch issued

MIAMI, Oct. 4 (UPI) — Category 3 Hurricane Matthew is expected move through the lower Bahamas as it continues to threaten Florida on Wednesday after the system hit Haiti and Cuba, killing at least seven people through the Caribbean.

Matthew, located less than 150 miles south-southeast of Bahamas’ Long Island, is moving north at a speed of 10 mph with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph, the National Hurricane Center said in its latest update. A hurricane watch has been extended in Florida up from north of the Sebastian Inlet to Fernandina Beach.

A hurricane warning is in effect for Haiti, eastern Cuba and the Bahamas, as well as inland Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and along the state’s coast from Golden Beach to the Sebastian Inlet.

Matthew, the most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007, is expected to turn north-northwest by Wednesday afternoon, followed by a northwest turn Wednesday evening.

“Matthew will be moving across the Bahamas through Thursday, and is expected to be very near the east coast of Florida by Thursday evening,” the NHC said.

The hurricane made landfall near Les Anglais in western Haiti at 7 a.m. Tuesday with 145 mph winds and torrential rains. It’s the strongest hurricane to strike Haiti since 1964.

The Category 3 hurricane made landfall in Cuba late Tuesday, bringing life-threatening wind, surf and rain conditions that could cause floods and mudslides.

With a long-range forecasts showing a late Friday or early Saturday landfall in southeastern North Carolina, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced evacuation plans for her state’s coastal lowlands, which could see severe flooding from Matthew’s heavy rains and storm surge.

Officials in Florida’s Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Martin counties north of the Miami area announced the closure of all schools there Thursday and Friday to prepare for their potential use as shelters. School buses typically do not run in winds stronger than 40 mph.

Meanwhile, 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.

The NHC warns that time is running out for outdoor preparation for Hurricane Matthew in the Bahamas. Floridians should make preparations as soon as possible, especially those who live on the immediate coast in the hurricane watch area north of Miami.

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 Barack 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 115 mph winds as it moves north.

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 while offshore from Daytona Beach.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency across all counties in the state and activated several hundred National Guard soldiers for staging on the coast, while North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory activated a state of emergency for 66 counties.

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

Matthew will drop from 8-12 inches of rain in the Bahamas, with isolated rainfall of 15 inches. Areas in Florida under a tropical storm watch or higher can expect 4-7 inches of rain.

The NHC warns of dangerous flash floods and mudslides in southern and northwestern Haiti, southwestern Dominican Republic and eastern Cuba following recent torrential rainfall.

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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