Hurricane Matthew intensified to a powerful Category 4 storm — the first of the season — on Friday as it took aim at Jamaica.
By Friday evening, National Hurricane Center forecasters said sustained winds in Matthew had reached a fierce 150 mph, a rapid intensification over the last day that forecasters called “remarkable.” The storm was located about 440 miles southeast of Kingston, and had slowed to 9 mph.
The storm, the first Cat 4 storm since Hurricane Joaquin hit the Bahamas in 2015, could dump up to 20 inches of rain in parts of Jamaica, raising the risk of dangerous landslides on the mountainous island. Haiti, where far less dangerous storms can trigger fatal mudslides, could begin feeling tropical storm force winds by Sunday. Both islands could see up to 25 inches of rain in places.
The Jamaican government issued a hurricane watch, with forecasters warning that tropical storm force winds could hit the island by Sunday. A tropical storm watch was issued for the southwest coast of Haiti, from the border of the Dominican Republic to Port-Au-Prince.
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Whether Florida takes a hit next week remains too uncertain to call, but residents should stay alert, National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb said Friday.
“Because those models are so widely varying on what they forecast, I’ve been telling folks during the weekend you do not want to tune out,” he said.
The weekend is also the time to get ready, he said.
“We live this problem [too], so that’s what we’re going to do this weekend. We’re going to check our supplies. We’re going to urge folks to find out if you live in an evacuation zone,” he said. “Do those things now so you don’t end up getting caught at the last minute.”
Because those models are so widely varying on what they forecast, I’ve been telling folks during the weekend you do not want to tune out.
National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb
Over the last day, sustained winds in the storm increased by about 73 mph in about 24 hours. The intensification happened despite stiff wind shear — upper winds that typically stifle hurricanes — blowing at 23 mph. As Matthew moves over warm Caribbean waters, forecasters warned the storm could grow even more powerful.
The storm is continuing to move to the west, and was expected to slow overnight and Saturday. It should begin to turn to the north, northwest Saturday night, and near Jamaica on Sunday.
Computer models that earlier split on the storm’s future path settled on three-day track slightly west of earlier forecasts. By late Monday or early Tuesday, the storm could cross the east end of Cuba and head into the Bahamas, but forecasters cautioned that models are far less reliable predicting more than three days in advance, with a margin of error of up to 175 miles at four days.
“We’ve got this thing going north, but it could be to the left or right. We don’t want this thing dropping off anyone’s radar over the weekend because by Monday it could be a very different storm from what we have now,” said hurricane center spokesman and meteorologist Dennis Feltgen. “It’s an atmospheric tug of war over the next few days and it will have huge impacts over where this thing goes.”
With such a sprawling storm, high winds and rain could be felt all across Jamaica, with flooding possible in the capital of Kingston, National Meteorological Service Director Evan Thompson said. Matthew will likely dump 10 to 15 inches of rain, with some areas getting 25 inches, a drenching raising the threat of dangerous landslides. In 2005, back-to-back hurricanes caused nearly $1 billion in damage and left 440 homes destroyed or damage.
On Friday, the country activated its emergency operations center. Prime Minister Andrew Holness called an emergency meeting with parliament to go over preparation efforts.
In vulnerable Haiti, even a brush from Matthew could have dangerous consequences. Flooding and mudslides occur regularly with heavy rain alone. In 2012, Sandy killed at least 52 people. Flooding in February damaged 10,000 homes.
So far, Matthew has been blamed for at least one death: a 16-year-old boy crushed by a boulder on St. Vincent in the eastern Caribbean on Wednesday, when he tried to clear a blocked drain.
The last major hurricane to make landfall in Jamaica was Gilbert in 1988, according to Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach. Gilbert was the most intense hurricane in the Atlantic until Wilma beat it in 2005. Matthew becomes the first Category 4 hurricane to strike the Caribbean in September since Hurricane Felix in 2007, he said.
Forecasters say Matthew will remain a powerful storm at least until Sunday. At 5 p.m Friday, hurricane force winds spread 35 miles from the storm’s center, with tropical storm force winds extending 195 miles.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich