It’s been more than 10 years since a hurricane last slammed into South Florida, and millions across Broward and Miami-Dade County crossed their fingers Tuesday, hoping that streak won’t end this week.
But the region also spent the day bracing for the worst as Hurricane Matthew churned through the Caribbean and into the Atlantic. As of Tuesday’s 8 p.m. advisory, the storm remained on a path that could see the category 4 storm sideswipe the state — or possibly strike South Florida or somewhere farther up the coast should it veer westward.
“I know that we have not been hit by a storm in 11 years and it can be easy to become complacent and think these things may miss us, but this is very serious,” Broward County Mayor Martin David Kiar said Tuesday evening. “You have to be prepared.”
Prepare South Florida did.
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With a hurricane watch stretching as far south as Golden Beach and a tropical storm watch descending south to the Florida Keys, demand spiked so much at grocery stores that Winn Dixie shipped an extra 117,000 cases of water and 12,000 gallons of milk to South Florida. Some gas stations expected to run out of gasoline. And Florida Power and Light positioned crews and equipment around the region and hired 2,000 extra employees to prepare for inevitable power outages.
Meanwhile, local governments checked storm drains, drained canals into the Atlantic and Florida Bay and took stock of their shoreline amid expectations of beach erosion. Gov. Rick Scott prepared to deploy hundreds of members of the National Guard across Florida. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspected the Hoover Dike at the uncomfortably swollen Lake Okeechobee, where Matthew’s 140 mile-per-hour sustained winds can create complications should the storm come ashore.
“This is a powerful and very strong storm and it should not be taken lightly,” Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera said in Doral Tuesday evening.
Though meteorologists and local emergency managers said it was still too early to predict with certainty or specificity Tuesday afternoon how the hurricane would affect South Florida, the National Weather Service said Matthew could begin pummeling the region with tropical storm-force winds and conditions as early as late night Wednesday. Concerns of coastal flooding were tempered — though in Miami Beach the city was already struggling with high tides and rain Monday evening — but the storm was expected to strengthen as it emerged north of Cuba.
“As of right now for sure we’re looking at very strong winds and heavy rainfall. Isolated tornadoes are possible,” said meteorologist Maria Torres.
As the hurricane approached, Broward County Schools announced classes would be closed Thursday and Friday, and the Miami-Dade School Board said it was still mulling whether to do the same. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez urged residents to prepare but said no evacuation plans were underway. His counterpart in Broward said the county would announce the locations Wednesday of storm shelters able to accommodate people with special needs, pediatric special needs, general population and pets.
At the same time, engineers with the South Florida Water Management District continued draining some 2,000 miles of canals and waterways to help avoid flooding in anticipation of between four and eight inches of rain in the area around Lake Okeechobee, which itself remained under a hurricane watch.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a regularly scheduled inspection of the dike at the massive lake Tuesday and found no problems. Spokesman John Campbell said there is some concern about the level of the lake, which is just shy of 16 feet, about a foot below where problems begin to arise with the dike. But he said there was no imminent threat.
“People should be assured right now the dike is in no imminent danger of failure,” he said.
South Florida residents were probably more worried about their own homes Tuesday. Stanley Delva, a nurse who works in Boca Raton and lives in Port St. Lucie, admitted he was “a little nervous” as he filled up his car around 3:30 at a Glades Road gas station just off Florida’s Turnpike.
“Everybody is getting crazy now. I’m getting prepared,” he said.
In Kendall, Shell gas station customer John Thurbon said he was grabbing gas before helping his parents put up hurricane shutters and prepare their generator. Thurbon, who was around in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew devastated Miami-Dade, said he wanted to be prepared.
“I did nothing before Andrew, and I’m not going to let that happen again,” he said. I’m not taking any chances.”
Miami Herald staff writers Alex Harris, Cresonia Hsieh, David J. Neal, Joey Flechas, Jenny Staletovich, Carli Teproff, Kyra Gurney, Nancy Dahlberg and Ariana Figueroa contributed to this report.