Millions of Floridians braced Friday morning as Hurricane Matthew lashed the state's east coast with dangerous winds and 9-foot storm surges.
The storm, already blamed for nearly 300 deaths in the Caribbean, approached as a Category 4 hurricane Thursday night, capable of inflicting catastrophic damage. It packed sustained winds of 130 mph, strong enough to snap trees and power poles and obliterate homes in its direct path. Few storms that powerful have hit the Sunshine State.
Gov. Rick Scott did not mince words Thursday when addressing any of the 1.5 million Floridians living in mandatory evacuation zones who were thinking of staying put.
"This storm will kill you," he said.
To help the flow of people inland, state transportation officials suspended tolls on Florida's Turnpike, Alligator Alley and all roadways overseen by the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and the Central Florida Expressway Authority. Still, the roads quickly became clogged as people fled the coast.
"If you wait, all you're going to do is get stuck in traffic, and there's a greater chance you'll have problems with fuel," Scott warned.
THE LATEST CONDITIONS
As of 5 a.m., Hurricane Matthew was just offshore of Florida’s east coast.
But the National Hurricane Center says the Category 3 storm’s western eyewall is approaching Cape Canaveral with hurricane-force winds.
Matthew is centered about 40 miles east-southeast of Cape Canaveral and is moving north-northwest near 13 mph.
Hurricane-force winds extend up to 60 miles from the center, with tropical storm-force winds up to 185 miles from the center.
But even though the eye is still off-shore, Florida is already seeing strong winds. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says sustained winds of 46 mph and a gust of 70 mph have been reported in Melbourne.
Two million people were warned to flee inland as the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade charged toward Florida. Matthew left more than 280 dead in its wake across the Caribbean.
Earlier in the day, Matthew powered up as it churned over warmer-than-usual waters around the Bahamas. The first rain bands arrived over South Florida Thursday morning.
As the storm plowed north at 13 mph, it was expected to strafe much of Florida's east coast. Any deviation west from that predicted path could cause Matthew to make landfall somewhere between Palm Beach County and the Florida-Georgia border.
But even absent a direct hit, the storm could have cataclysmic consequences, 10Weather WTSP meterologist Bobby Deskins said. A landfall would likely cause Matthew to weaken. "If the western eye wall comes close to shore, but it doesn't completely come onshore, the eastern side of this thing will still feed over the warm water," he said.
The good news: Meteorologists on Thursday seemed less concerned about the potential "loop" scenario, in which Matthew heads out to sea and then takes aim at Florida a second time. Though the latest models predicted such a path, experts said the high-pressure system driving the change in direction likely would weaken the storm significantly.
All of the Tampa Bay area was under a tropical storm watch or warning Thursday, with conditions expected to be equally as windy today. The gusts could reach up to 40 mph in some areas — conditions that could force the closure of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
School districts in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Polk, Hardee, Citrus and Manatee canceled classes today. Tampa International Airport likely would remain open, spokesman Danny Valentine said, but some flights in and out of South Florida and the Caribbean likely would be canceled.
SOME STAY, SOME GO
Betty and Dick Yon, retirees who live south of Vero Beach, were among the Floridians who moved inland. They made the decision Wednesday when their water and sewer were shut off.
Finding a place to stay wasn't easy. Betty Yon, 79, spent nearly an hour calling hotels, most of which had no vacancies. She found an available room at a Best Western in Fort Pierce.
On Thursday morning, she and her husband enjoyed a continental breakfast and watched the latest forecast. She hoped they wouldn't lose power and be forced to drink cold canned soup for dinner.
"A Category 4 that close to us," she said. "It's going to be bad."
On Jensen Beach, a sliver of land off the Treasure Coast, a police officer took to the streets in his marked cruiser to remind residents they needed to leave Nettles Island.
"This is a mandatory evacuation," his voice blared from a loudspeaker.
But Helen Conti, 71, wasn't going anywhere.
Conti said her two-story home is rated for 150 mph winds and withstood the one-two punch of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004. She wasn't all that concerned about Matthew.
One thing made her nervous, though: the storm's wobbly path.
"They keep changing it on television," she said.
Next door, 53-year-old Bill Gangi waited for Matthew in a friend's stucco house. He had a grill, and enough food and water to last five days. By then, he speculated, help would arrive on the island.
Gangi was unfazed by the warnings.
"I've been in (hurricanes) before," he said. "People overrate them."
Up the coast on Daytona Beach, in another mandatory evacuation zone, roommates Ryan Bell, 28, and Emily Vulpi, 29, made a similar choice to ride out the storm in their house just three blocks from the beach.
But on Thursday, Vulpi was second-guessing that call. She spent the morning wishing she had bought some plywood to board up the windows. Now, the only stores with inventory were hours away.
"I wasn't really concerned until yesterday and then the social media started getting to me," she said. "I started getting a little bit more panicky."
Farther north, residents of Jacksonville and the surrounding beach communities had a little more time to prepare. Matthew wasn't expected near their shores until Friday afternoon.
But if the storm were to cut in off the coast of St. Augustine or Fernandina Beach, barrier islands could be swallowed in waves and flooding. The region also could see a deadly storm surge along the St. Johns River.
The city ordered evacuations in three zones that include the beaches and areas surrounding the river. It was hard to tell Thursday how many people had evacuated so far, Sheriff Mike Williams said at a news briefing. Roads, including Interstate 10 heading west out of the city, were generally clear.
Mayor Lenny Curry, with an edge in his voice, emphasized that residents who stay most likely will be on their own as conditions become too dangerous for emergency workers to respond.
"This is about your life," Curry said. "This is about protecting your family."
Times staff writers Sara DiNatale and Kathryn Varn and Times/Herald staff writers Kristen Clark and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.