The eye of Hurricane Matthew inched closer to the eastern Florida coast Friday and pelted the Sunshine State with heavy rains and potentially catastrophic winds of 120 mph.
The most powerful storm in more than a decade to threaten the U.S. has already forced two million people across the Southeast to flee inland and left a path of destruction in its wake, killing more than 280 across the Caribbean.
“This storm’s a monster,” Gov. Rick Scott warned as it started lashing the state with periodic heavy rains and squalls around nightfall. He added: “I’m going to pray for everybody’s safety.”
The storm initially threatened Florida as a Category 4 storm, but the National Hurricane Center said Friday the storm had weakened to a Category 3. Forecasters said it could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, freeing up federal money and personnel to protect lives and property.
Matthew inched toward Florida in the early Friday morning hours. The National Hurricane Center said the storm’s western eye wall was approaching Cape Canaveral. Matthew was centered about 40 miles east-southeast of Cape Canaveral and moving north-northwest around 13 mph.
The hurricane had already spared some of the lower laying regions of South Florida, missing about 4.4 million people in Miami and Fort Lauderdale from its most punishing effects.
More than 270,000 homes and businesses were without power. Streets in Vero Beach were partially covered with water, and hotel guests in Orlando were told to stay inside, though some trickled out to survey the damage or watch the rain.
The hurricane was expected to blow ashore — or come dangerously close to doing so — early Friday north of Palm Beach County, which has about 1.4 million people, and then slowly push north for the next 12 hours along the Interstate 95 corridor, through Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters said it would then probably hug the coast of Georgia and South Carolina over the weekend before veering out to sea — perhaps even looping back toward Florida in the middle of next week as a tropical storm.
Millions of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were told to evacuate their homes, and interstate highways were turned into one-way routes to speed the exodus. Florida alone accounted for about 1.5 million of those told to clear out.
“The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida,” the governor warned.
They said the major threat to the Southeast would not be the winds — which newer buildings can withstand — but the massive surge of seawater that could wash over coastal communities along a 500-mile stretch from South Florida to the Charleston, South Carolina, area.
The Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and the Orlando airport planned to do so as well. The Palm Beach International Airport reported a wind gust of 50 mph with the center of the storm 70 miles offshore, the National Hurricane Center said. Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights Thursday and Friday, many of them in or out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Amtrak suspended train service between Miami and New York, and cruise lines rerouted ships to avoid the storm, which in some cases will mean more days at sea.
Orlando’s world-famous theme parks — Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld — all closed.
“I never get time off. I’m a little sad,” tourist Amber Klinkel, 25, of Battle Creek, Michigan, lamented at Universal.
Patients were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Thousands of people hunkered down in schools converted to shelters, and inland hotels in places such as Charlotte, North Carolina, reported brisk business.
At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA no longer has to worry about rolling space shuttles back from the launch pad to the hangar because of hurricanes, since the shuttle fleet is now retired. But the spaceflight company SpaceX was concerned about the storm’s effect on its leased seaside pad.
As evening fell, the winds picked up along Vero Beach, midway between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral, stripping away palm fronds, ripping awnings and blowing sand that stung the face. Waves crashed on the beach, and rain came in short bursts.
Many boarded up their homes and businesses and left them to the mercy of the storm.
“We’re not going to take any chances on this one,” said Daniel Myras, who struggled to find enough plywood to protect his restaurant, the Cruisin Cafe, two blocks from the Daytona Beach boardwalk.
He added: “A lot of people here, they laugh, and say they’ve been through storms before and they’re not worried. But I think this is the one that’s going to give us a wake-up call.”
However, not everyone was heeding the warning from the government.
Rapper Vanilla Ice, who lives in West Palm Beach, tweeted earlier Thursday that he planned to ride the storm out and provided some updates through the social networking site.
Brevard County spokesman Dan Walker told the Orlando Sentinel reported that of the 90,000 people who lived on the barrier islands, only 3,500 had checked into the county’s 15 shelters.
“It would be very unsafe to have stayed on the barrier island,” he said. “There are lives in danger.”
The coordinator for Haiti’s Interior Ministry in the area hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew said the confirmed death toll in that southwestern zone was 283. Emmanuel Pierre told The Associated Press late Thursday that he expects the toll to rise as authorities reach remote places that were left isolated by the storm.
Bodies have started to appear as waters recede in some areas two days after Matthew smashed concrete walls, flattened palm trees and tore roofs off homes.
In the Bahamas, authorities reported many downed trees and power lines but no immediate deaths.