MIAMI, Oct. 5 (UPI) — A very powerful Category 3 Hurricane Matthew moved over the Bahamas Wednesday, regaining strength en route to a closer brush with Florida than predicted earlier in the day.
Residents north of Miami are emptying store shelves and boarding up in preparation what is expected to be a Category 4 hurricane hugging the coast with the eye from about 50 miles off West Palm Beach to virtually overhead at Cape Canaveral between Thursday night and Friday afternoon. The storm is expected to make a sharp turn to the northeast at that point.
The National Hurricane Center reported at 5 p.m. that Matthew was about 400 miles southeast of West Palm Beach moving northwest at 12 mph. Maximum winds near the eye were recorded at 120 mph with gusts to 145 mph, with strengthening expected to 130 mph and gusts to 160 mph as it approaches Florida.
Hurricane force winds extend out 45 miles from the eye, and tropical storm-force winds extend out 175 miles.
Hurricane conditions are expected to first reach hurricane warning areas in Florida by late Thursday and will spread north into Thursday night and Friday. Tropical storm conditions are first expected in Florida by early Thursday.
At least seven people have been reported killed in the Caribbean, but that number is likely to go higher as the cleanup begins.
Matthew’s long-range forecast track is showing a dramatic curve away from North and South Carolina, where officials on Monday and Tuesday were bracing for what was expected to be a major hurricane landfall on Sunday and Monday. Extended range runs of Matthew’s potential track show troubling signs for the Bahamas, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico next week.
A hurricane warning is now in effect in the Bahamas and on Florida’s Atlantic coast from north of Miami to north of Daytona Beach, with a hurricane watch in place from north of Daytona Beach to the Georgia state line. Also under hurricane warning is Lake Okeechobee north of Everglades National Park, which has closed for the duration of the storm. A new tropical storm watch was issued for Florida’s Gulf coast.
Many islands in the Bahamas face inundation as Matthew pushes through, with a storm surge up to 15 feet possible in some locations.
Matthew is now the most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007 and the most powerful hurricane to hit Haiti in 52 years. The hurricane made landfall near Les Anglais in southwestern Haiti at 7 a.m. Tuesday with 145 mph winds and torrential rains. The extent of damage in Haiti isn’t yet clear.
Matthew made landfall in extreme eastern Cuba as a Category 3 storm late Tuesday, bringing life-threatening winds, storm surge and heavy rains.
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.
Residents in South Florida began emptying store shelves of bread, water, soda and basic food items Tuesday, and by Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, most stores had empty shelves. Also sold out were gas cans and full propane cylinders. Some bank ATMs had no cash and many gas stations had run out of fuel. Residents stood for two hours early Tuesday morning, waiting to have propane cylinders filled in Margate, Fla., northwest of Fort Lauderdale.
Meanwhile, another storm formed Tuesday — Tropical Storm Nicole — with 50 mph winds in the open Atlantic between Puerto Rico and Bermuda. Nicole is forecast to circle slowly for the next several days and is currently no threat to land.
The NHC warns that time is rapidly running out for outdoor storm preparation. Floridians should make preparations as soon as possible, especially those who live on the immediate coast 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.
Long-range forecasts now show the storm making a turn to the north Friday morning while just 30 miles off Melbourne, Fla., followed by a sharp turn to the east-northeast near Georgia on Saturday and an east-southeast turn on Sunday on its closest approach to North Carolina, well offshore.
With strong wind shear on Monday, Matthew is expected to weaken to a Category 1 storm with 80 mph winds. A European ensemble run of computer hurricane tracking models shows Matthew potentially looping back around south and west again for another go at the Bahamas and Florida amid more favorable conditions for strengthening again before entering the Gulf of Mexico and turning north.
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, with isolated rainfall of 10 inches.
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.