Hurricane Matthew became a rare, and very fierce, Category 5 hurricane late Friday.
In their 11 p.m. advisory, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm’s sustained winds reached 160 mph. The storm was located about 440 miles southeast of Kingston, moving west at 7 mph. A hurricane hunter plane late Friday found higher gusts, with hurricane force winds extending 45 miles from Matthew’s center.
The storm is the first Cat 5 in the Atlantic since Hurricane Felix landed in Nicaragua in 2007.
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Headed toward Jamaica, forecasters warned Matthew could dump up to 20 inches of rain in parts of the mountainous island, raising the risk of dangerous landslides. Forecasters warned the storm will likely remain a powerful Cat 4 storm when it reaches eastern Cuba. Haiti could also feel dangerous winds and heavy rain beginning Sunday. Both Jamaica and Haiti 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.
Cuba also issued a bulletin Friday evening for provinces from Camaguey, in central Cuba, to Guantanamo on the island's eastern tip. The warning urged residents to be on alert and activated defense councils in those provinces. State agencies also began implementing disaster preparedness plans.
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.”
Over the last day, sustained winds in the storm increased by about 83 mph in just over 24 hours. The intensification happened despite stiff wind shear — upper winds that typically stifle hurricanes — blowing at 23 mph.
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, 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, 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.
Forecasters say Matthew will remain a powerful storm at least until Monday. Forecasters expect the storm to near the Bahamas on Tuesday but say uncertainty about where exactly the storm hits remains high.
Staff writer Mimi Whitefield contributed to this report.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich