Matthew, the first major hurricane threatening a direct hit on the United States in more than 10 years, blasted the Bahamas on Thursday as it headed for Florida after killing at least 265 people in the Caribbean, mostly in Haiti.
Carrying extremely dangerous winds of 140 mph (220 kph), the storm pounded the northwestern part of the Bahamas en route to Florida’s Atlantic coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
Matthew’s sustained winds later dropped to 130 mph, but it was likely to remain a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity as it closed in on the United States, where it could either take direct aim at Florida or tear along the state’s coast through Friday night, the Miami-based center said.
Few storms with winds as powerful as Matthew’s have struck Florida, and the NHC warned 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.
Hurricane conditions were expected in parts of Florida late on Thursday and a dangerous storm surge is expected to reach up to 11 feet (3.35 meters) along the Florida coast, Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the Miami-based NHC, said on CNN.
“What we know is that most of the lives lost in hurricanes is due to storm surge,” he said.
Some 261 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighborhoods earlier in the week. Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic, which neighbors Haiti.
As the storm passed near the Bahamas capital of Nassau, howling gusts of wind brought down palms and other trees and ripped shingles off the rooftops of many houses. The eye of the storm was located over the western end of Grand Bahama Island on Thursday evening.
It was too soon to predict where Matthew might do the most of its damage in the United States, but the NHC’s hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
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.
Jeff Masters, a veteran hurricane expert, said on his Weather Underground website (www.wunderground.com) that Matthew’s wind threat was especially serious at Cape Canaveral, which juts into the Atlantic off central Florida.