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

MIAMI, Oct. 4 (UPI) — “Extremely dangerous” Category 4 Hurricane Matthew pounded Haiti much of the day and has made landfall in Cuba, and is on its way to the Bahamas and Florida, where the National Hurricane Center has issued a hurricane watch for much of the state‘s Atlantic coast.

Matthew, now packing 145 mph sustained winds and moving north at 9 mph, 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 is the most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007. It’s the strongest hurricane to strike Haiti since 1964.

Weather officials in eastern Cuba reported worsening conditions there ahead of a Tuesday night landfall.

With a long-range forecast track issued mid-day on Tuesday showing a late Friday or early Saturday landfall in extreme 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.

The forecast track issued late Tuesday afternoon was good news for that region, with Matthew’s center forecast to be much farther east, hitting North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the north before curving out to open water. Such long-range predictions are notoriously hard to make, however, and the entire region remains in the storm’s “cone of uncertainty.”

A hurricane watch is in effect from Golden Beach, Fla., (just north of North Miami Beach) to the Volusia/Brevard county line. A tropical storm watch is in effect from the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys to Golden Beach, including Lake Okeechobee inland.

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

Officials in Broward, 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. Officials in Miami-Dade County, south of the hurricane watch area, had not yet made a decision by 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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.

Storm surge in Florida is forecast to range from 3 to 5 feet above normal tides from North Palm Beach to the Volusia/Brevard county line. Storm surge forecasts for potential landfall in North and South Carolina will be made as the storm gets closer.

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.

And forecasters are 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 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.

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 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.

The center of Matthew was 30 miles south-southwest of Cuba’s eastern tip at 5 p.m. Eastern Tuesday. It is expected to move over the Bahamas Tuesday night and Wednesday approaching Florida late Wednesday and early Thursday morning. Hurricane-force winds now extend up to 45 miles from Matthew’s center and tropical storm-force winds extend up to 175 miles out, a decrease in spread from mid-day Tuesday. Such fluctuations are typical of powerful storms.

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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