After killing at least 283 people across the Caribbean and pounding the Bahamas, a powerful Hurricane Matthew continued a relentless march toward Florida's east coast on Thursday evening.
The dangerous Category 4 storm, with winds of at least 140 mph, could make landfall, or interact with the coast, anywhere between Melbourne and up to around Daytona Beach by 8 a.m. Friday, said Ruskin-based National Weather Service meteorologist Rick Davis. "This is a very dangerous storm; there's potential for life-threatening damage and life-threatening destruction," Davis said. "We don't take this lightly."
"My biggest concern is people aren't taking this seriously enough,'' warned Gov. Rick Scott at his third hurricane briefing of the day from St. John's County Thursday. "I don't want people to lose their life." The state ordered 1.5 million residents in evacuation zones along the east coast to leave their homes. Not everyone complied.
• At 5 p.m., the National Hurricane Center reported, Matthew was about to hit Freeport in the Bahamas, and the storm could have "potentiality disastrous impacts for Florida." Forecasts place the storm just off Daytona Beach about 2 p.m. Friday.
• President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Florida because of the hurricane. That order allows aid to flow from Washington and lets the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinate relief efforts with state agencies.
• Gov. Scott said he has activated 3,500 National Guardsmen and has up to 6,600 on standby.
• More than 60 shelters were opened in Florida for people evacuated from their homes or hotel rooms.
• Schools in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are closed on Friday, as are many goverment offices.
DEATH TOLL CLIMBS TO 283 ACROSS CARIBBEAN
Haitian officials on Thursday dramatically raised the known death toll from Hurricane Matthew as they finally began to reach corners of the country that had been cut off by the rampaging storm.
Officials announced that at least 283 had died, up from a previous count of 108. That increased the hurricane's overall toll across the Caribbean to about 300.
Officials were especially concerned about the department of Grand-Anse, at the northern tip of the peninsula that was slammed by the Category 4 storm, severing roads and communications links.
Officials with the Civil Protection Agency said 38 of the known deaths were reported in Grand-Anse.
"Devastation is everywhere," Pilus Enor, mayor of the town of Camp Perrin, told The Associated Press. "Every house has lost its roof. All the plantations have been destroyed. ...This is the first time we see something like this."
— Associated Press
WILL MATTHEW MAKE A LOOP?
As if the first major hurricane in years pressing toward the state couldn't get worse, several projections show Matthew could loop around and strike Florida again next week.
It's daunting news for a packed east coast bracing itself for the storm's inevitable impact, but experts say there's no need to panic. If the loop-around ends up happening, Matthew will most likely be a shell of its former self, hardly comparable to the double-hitter in 2004 when hurricanes Frances and Jeanne pummeled the Treasure Coast weeks apart from each other.
"Don't freak out," said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground. "It's going to be a much weaker storm the second time around, and, yeah, it will be a bit of a psychological shock, but the bottom line is the science of it says this second go-around is going to be really no big deal."
The path of the storm is dictated by steering currents that are part of a high-pressure system over the Atlantic Ocean, called the Bermuda High, Masters said. The shape and intensity of that system is constantly changing, influenced by storms in the north. In this case, the system is shifting across the east coast, blocking the storm from continuing north.
Two early models showed that happening, an illustration that "was worthy of profuse profanity," Masters wrote Wednesday on his website. Projections as of Thursday afternoon show the storm heading back toward the Bahamas then moving toward South Florida
The turn south is expected to happen on Tuesday off the coast of South Carolina, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The same currents that steer the storm are anticipated to weaken it. By the time it comes back, wind speeds will sit at about 40 mph.
— KATHRYN VARN, Times staff writer
FLORIDA THEME PARKS CLOSE
All of Disney's Orlando theme parks, water parks, Disney Springs, miniature golf courses and ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex will remain closed through Friday because of Hurricane Matthew.
Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and CityWalk will remain closed on Friday. Halloween Horror Nights is canceled Friday night. "Our plan is to resume normal operations across our destination Saturday morning," Universal spokeswoman Alyson Lundell said.
SeaWorld Orlando will be closed on Friday, as will SeaWorld's water park Aquatica.
At Busch Gardens in Tampa, spokeswoman Karen Varga-Sinka said, "We are continuing to monitor Hurricane Matthew and at this time we are expected to be open as scheduled. We have comprehensive weather preparedness plans in place, and will continue to closely monitor the progress and track of the storm."
— CHRISTOPHER SPATA, Times staff writer
ZACHARY T. SAMPSON | Times
ZACHARY T. SAMPSON | Times
RIDING OUT THE STORM
The deputy's voice blared from the loudspeaker on his marked cruiser, warning everyone of the mandatory evacuation, the coming storm, the plain terms: Get off of Nettles Island. Not everyone did.
The small community on a spit off Hutchinson Island, itself just a sliver of land that forms a barrier island off the Treasure Coast, is filled with manufactured homes. With Hurricane Matthew bearing down, authorities were warning people to get inland, to hunker down, and to most definitely abandon such flimsy structures, which will offer little protection from the predicted high winds and rushing storm surge.
Patty Weinrib, 68, said she has heard residents of Nettles Island who evacuate might not be allowed to return for several days. Twenty-four bad hours she thinks she can take. But the days of not knowing? That would be too much.
"I would want to know what condition my house is in," she said.
Weinrib on Thursday turned her freezer down to -6 degrees and her refrigerator to 30 degrees so her food will last longer when the power goes out. She took her two dogs, a Westie named Tracey and a shih-tzu named Mini, for a walk — one of the last before they become homebound in the hurricane.
"I'm a little worried about where they're going to pee, but we'll deal with it," Weinrib said.
Weinrib hopes a few stucco or concrete houses around her manufactured home will offer some protection from the wind.
— ZACHARY T. SAMPSON, Times staff writer
EFFECTS ON GEORGIA, SOUTH CAROLINA
Forecasters warned that Hurricane Matthew could inundate the coast of South Carolina just a year after what was called a 1,000-year flood closed Charleston for several days.
A forecast map issued by the National Weather Service showed that as much as 14 inches of rain could fall in the Charleston and Georgetown areas between Thursday night and Sunday night as the hurricane passes at sea.
It was just a year ago that as much as 2 feet of rain fell in some areas of South Carolina. Streets in Charleston were flooded so badly that police kept people from coming downtown to the peninsula for several days.
A section of Interstate 95 near Orangeburg was also closed for a time. The Matthew forecast predicts between 5 and 8 inches of rain could fall in that area before the weekend is over.
Gov. Nathan Deal has ordered mandatory evacuations along the entire Georgia coast as Hurricane Matthew approaches.
Deal said Thursday that everyone east of Interstate 95 should flee Georgia's six coastal counties — Chatham, Bryan, Liberty, McIntosh, Glynn and Camden. Those counties have a combined population of more than 522,000 people.
The governor had asked coastal residents to evacuate on a voluntary basis Wednesday. He called for mandatory evacuations as the National Hurricane Center placed all 100 miles of coastal Georgia under a hurricane warning Thursday.
Officials say powerful winds and heavy rains from Matthew could begin to arrive in coastal Georgia late Thursday. The storm is forecast to pass Saturday.
The Georgia coast hasn't seen a hurricane evacuation since a near-miss with Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
— Associated Press
Times Staff Writers Zachary T. Sampson and Anastasia Dawson, Times/Herald reporter Kristen M. Clark and the Associated Press contributed to this report.