Hurricane Matthew continued its brutal march across the Caribbean, leaving a wake of misery in Haiti and making landfall in Cuba on Tuesday evening — with the Bahamas and Florida next in the sights of the fierce Category 4 storm.
With the storm’s forecast track shifting west through the day, National Hurricane Center forecasters warned that much of the state’s Atlantic coast could begin to feel Matthew’s bruising winds in as little as two days. The storm, blamed for nine deaths so far, is expected to track perilously close to a state that hasn’t taken a direct hit from a major storm in more than a decade — and could potentially make landfall somewhere along the coast.
“You need to take this very seriously [Tuesday] and [Wednesday],” National Hurricane Center Direct Rick Knabb said Tuesday morning. “The impacts are going to happen no matter what.”
On Tuesday evening, forecasters widened a hurricane watch to include Golden Beach, extending it north to Central Florida’s coast and including Lake Okeechobee as the forecast track shifted farther west. A tropical storm watch extended from the middle Keys north to the Broward County line.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Matthew had made landfall at Juaco on the southeast coast of Cuba and was moving north at about 9 mph. Sustained winds remained at 140 mph, with hurricane force winds spread across 90 miles.
Matthew was likely to be near the Central Bahamas on Tuesday night and move north-northwest by Wednesday, followed by a northwest turn Wednesday night. A steering ridge is expected to keep turning the storm toward Florida.
As Matthew nears Florida, it is likely to remain a dangerous Category 3 or 4 storm. The last major storm to strike South Florida was Wilma, which landed just south of Marco Island in 2005.
“It will take it a day or so to re-energize, but I think it’s likely to be a four again by Thursday morning when it’s getting near Florida,” Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters said.
No evacuation plans have yet been announced for Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a news briefing. But he urged residents to prepare for the storm now, stocking up on water, batteries and supplies and securing homes and businesses. School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday after-school activities would be suspended. A decision on whether to cancel classes was not made. Broward will close schools Thursday and Friday.
“If we do order evacuations, we will open shelters up in Miami-Dade County that can take care of you,” Gimenez said. To see a list of shelters, go to miamidade.gov/hurricane.
Gov. Rick Scott, who declared a state of emergency Monday, flew across the state, starting in Marathon on Tuesday morning, and warned residents living along the I-95 corridor to ready for “direct impacts” from the storm that might include tornadoes, heavy rain, high winds and beach erosion.
With a 185-mile wind field for tropical storm force winds extending from Matthew’s center, even a close brush from Matthew could bring punishing floods, storm surge and beach erosion, causing widespread damage on the state’s densely developed east coast. Miami Beach, which routinely floods during high tide, is due to get hit with a seasonal king tides later this month. On Thursday, high tide is forecast for 2.7 feet.
“It’s not just a wind event. Heavy rainfall and inland flooding will be more of a hazard the closer this gets,” Knabb said.
Whether the track holds remains to be seen. The storm is now being influenced by the Bermuda High, a seasonal weather pattern anchored east of the state with a clockwise flow, Masters said. But with the storm skirting so close to the coast, even a slight change in its path can have huge consequences.
“You have a completely different set of lands impacted,” he said.
In one advisory Tuesday, forecasters warned that “only a small deviation of the track to the left of the NHC forecast could bring the core of a major hurricane onshore.”
In 2004, Hurricane Charlie was predicted to hit Tampa as a Cat 2 storm five hours before landfall. Within three hours, it jumped to a Cat 4 and hit Port Charlotte, nearly a 100 miles to the south, catching residents by surprise even though the area fell under the forecast cone. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew weakened after passing over the Bahamas and within just a few hours rapidly recovered to hit Homestead with 145 mph winds.
Major changes, either in track or intensity, can also make it harder for models to digest data, adding uncertainty to the forecast. Matthew’s unusual southerly path, with a sharp turn across the Caribbean, also gives forecasters little historical information to rely on. Storms so far south typically get caught in tradewinds that push them west. In Matthew’s case, a strong low pressure system — rare but sometimes found in late-season storms — pulled it northward, Masters said.
“It’s unusual to see them move at right angles to that flow,” he said.
The only two storms on record that followed a similar path were Hurricane Hazel, which killed 400 people in Haiti in 1954, and Hurricane Sandy, which formed off the coast of Nicaragua in late October 2012 and pushed nearly nonstop north, crossing Jamaica and eastern Cuba, before coming ashore near Atlantic City, New Jersey.
As Florida braces, Haiti continued to struggle with damage from winds, flooding and mudslides that destroyed homes, washed away roads and killed livestock.
The center crossed southwestern Haiti about 7 a.m., becoming the first major hurricane to strike the island in 50 years. By 11 a.m., the Rouyonne River topped its banks and washed out a major road north of Port-Au-Prince. A bridge also collapsed south of the port city. Widespread flooding and dangerous mudslides are expected across the island where more than 61,000 still live in tents following the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people.
Adassa Romilus, a spokeswoman for Heifer International, a charity that works with 30,000 farming families in Haiti, said livestock placed in shelters for protection had been killed.
“The shelters couldn’t withstand the force of the hurricane,” she told The Associated Press.
Authorities said many homes have been destroyed but have not tallied the damage. At least two deaths have so far been confirmed.
In the Dominican Republic, three children were killed when the walls to their house collapsed in Santo Domingo, authorities said. An elderly resident in a neighboring town was also killed.
While Monroe County was not expected to get drenching rains and no evacuations have been ordered, county officials said residents and visitors in the Keys still need to stay alert.
“We are only 48 hours out and it still is a monster storm,” county administrator Roman Gastesi said in a statement, warning that those in the upper Keys need to pay particular attention.
Across the Caribbean, hurricane warnings remained in effect for Haiti, the eastern tip of Cuba to Las Tunas, and the Bahamas. Tropical storm conditions will likely spread across the northern parts of Haiti today, eastern Cuba later today and the southeastern Bahamas later today. Heavy rains and winds are expected to begin lashing the central and northwestern Bahamas Tuesday night and Wednesday.
Forecasters are also watching two other storms in the Atlantic. A wave several hundred miles east of the Windward Islands moving west at 10 to 15 mph could bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the islands in the next couple of days. Another wave about 520 miles northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico became Tropical Storm Nicole Tuesday morning. Sustained winds reached 50 mph as the storm headed northwest at 10 mph toward Bermuda. Forecasters say it will likely weaken.
Staff writers David Smiley and Mimi Whitefield, along with the Associated Press, contributed to this report.