More than two million people have been ordered to evacuate from America’s Southeastern coastline ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Matthew, with Florida’s governor warning residents to “prepare for a direct hit”.
Matthew struck the Bahamas after killing at least 22 people in Haiti and four in the Dominican Republican on Tuesday.
“I want to emphasise to the public – this is a serious storm,” President Barack Obama said after a briefing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “If there is an evacuation order in your community, you need to take it seriously.”
Matthew was a dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph (190 kph) as it passed through the Bahamas, and it was expected to be very near Florida’s Atlantic coast by Thursday evening.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley planned to call for more evacuations on Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state. Florida urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast, said Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for Governor Rick Scott. Georgia had around 50,000 people told to go.
Officials warned that the death toll could climb significantly once the full extent of the damage in Haiti is known.
The storm carved a path of devastation through southwestern Haiti, dumping boats and debris on coastal roads hit by surging seas and heavily flooding residential areas.
Some 80 percent of homes were damaged in Haiti’s Sud Department, which has a population of more than 700,000, a government official said in a meeting with UN officials. Some 11,000 people were in shelters in the province.
The most recent recordings show wind speeds reducing from 145 mph to 125 mph now that Hurricane Matthew has made landfall in Haiti.
But that does not mean that the storm has weakened for good. It could regain strength as it approaches the Bahamas, or it could indeed become a less potent though still dangerous storm.
Tuesday is a day of preparations in Florida. If Matthew’s course does take it directly over the state’s Eastern coast, the storm will not make landfall until late Thursday night or early Friday morning.
Governor Rick Scott told residents this morning: “we cannot rule out the possibility of a direct hit”.
He is urging residents to have enough food, water and medication on hand to last 72 hours. Mr Scott also advised Floridians to fill their cars with petrol and charge their mobile phones so they can seek help if needed.
Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina will consider mass evacuations if it appears the storm will strike them head on.
Matthew is not only a strong storm, but a slow-moving one. That could make it especially destructive, because it will linger over Haiti and possibly Cuba and the Southeastern US, allowing rainfall to accumulate into devastating totals.
In Haiti, as much as 40 inches could fall in isolated, mountainous areas. More than 20 inches are expected in more populated areas, many of which flooded before the storm even made landfall.