ORLANDO, Fla./MIAMI Hurricane Matthew, carrying winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kph), lashed central Florida on Friday, hugging the Atlantic coast as it moved north and threatening more destruction after killing nearly 500 people in Haiti.
Matthew, the first major hurricane to threaten a direct hit on the United States in more than a decade, triggered mass evacuations along the coast from Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina and North Carolina.
Southern parts of Florida escaped the brunt of the storm overnight, but authorities on Friday urged people further north not to get complacent. The Florida coastal city of Jacksonville could face significant flooding, Florida Governor Rick Scott warned.
The storm had cut power to some 600,000 households, he told a news conference.
In Haiti, where poor rural communities were ravaged by Matthew earlier this week, the death toll surged to at least 478 people on Friday, as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the storm, officials said.
At 8:00 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), Matthew’s eye, or center, was 35 miles (55 km) east of Cape Canaveral in Florida, home to the country’s main space launch site.
“The winds are ferocious right now,” said Jeff Piotrowski, a 40-year-old storm chaser from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was near Cape Canaveral early on Friday. The storm downed power lines and trees and destroyed billboards in Cape Canaveral, he said.
No significant damage or injuries were reported in West Palm Beach and other communities in south Florida where the storm had brought down trees and power lines earlier in the night, CNN and local media reported.
FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY
But Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in media interviews he was concerned that relatively light damage so far could give people further north a false sense of security.
“People should not be looking at the damages they’re seeing and saying this storm is not that bad,” Fugate told NBC. He also said people should be aware the hurricane carried more than just ferocious winds.
“The real danger still is storm surge, particularly in northern Florida and southern Georgia. These are very vulnerable areas. They’ve never seen this kind of damage potential since the late 1800s.”
“It’s still a very dangerous situation,” he said.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force, which operate the Cape Canaveral launch site, had taken steps to safeguard personnel and equipment. A team of 116 employees was bunkered down inside Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Control Center to ride out the hurricane.
In West Palm Beach, street lights and houses went dark and Interstate 95 was empty as the storm rolled through the community of 100,000 people. Matthew lessened in intensity on Thursday night and into Friday morning, the National Hurricane Center said. From an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, it became a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, but was still a major storm.
It could either plow inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday night, the Miami-based center said, warning of “potentially disastrous impacts.”
The U.S. National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.
The NHC’s director, Rick Knabb, said that although Matthew was so far raking the coast, with its eye offshore, it still posed great danger to residents along the coast.
“You don’t have to be near the center of the hurricane to be in the center of action with inland flooding,” he said in a webcast.
The NHC’s hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), to make landfall on U.S. shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas were still unclear as the storm passed near the capital, Nassau, on Thursday and then moved out over the western end of Grand Bahama Island.
Governor Scott has urged some 1.5 million people in coastal areas of Florida to evacuate and he continued to urge people to move away from danger on Friday.
“You still have time to evacuate. There’s no reason to be taking risks,” Scott told NBC’s “Today” program. “The most important thing to me is that we don’t lose one life.”
As of Friday morning, about 22,000 people were in Florida shelters and more moved inland or to the state’s west coast, Scott said.
Georgia and South Carolina had also opened dozens of shelters for evacuees.
Those states, as well as North Carolina, declared states of emergency, empowering their governors to mobilize the National Guard. President Barack Obama declared states of emergency in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, a move that authorized federal agencies to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
While some on the Florida coast decided to sit out the storm, many left, some heading for shelters.
Shane Murray, 41, of Palm Bay, said he decided on Thursday afternoon to leave his single-wide mobile home and head inland to Orlando with five members of his family, including his father.
“My father was thinking about staying, but we figured it was probably going to get rough, and we didn’t want to risk anyone getting hurt. It just came down to a gut feeling,” Murray said.
Hearing news reports on Friday he said, “we probably made the right call.”
(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Neil Hartnell in Nassau, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Nick Carey in Chicago, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, S.C., Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Joseph Guyler Delva in Haiti, Zachery Gagenson, Irene Klotz and Laila Kearney; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Catherine Evans and Bernadette Baum)