JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The strongest storm system to threaten the United States in a decade roared toward Florida on Thursday, forcing thousands from their homes and prompting dire warnings from forecasters and public officials alike.
Floridians hunkered down Thursday as pelting rain and punishing wind began to pummel the state, the first sting of a deadly hurricane expected to grind its way up the coast overnight and through most of the day Friday.
Gov. Rick Scott (R) repeatedly pleaded with residents to take the storm seriously, urging the 1.5 million Floridians in evacuation zones to leave and describing Hurricane Matthew in increasingly blunt terms as he tried to describe the peril.
“This is serious,” Scott said during one of his briefings Thursday. “This storm will kill you. Time is running out.”
Matthew tore through Haiti this week and caused nearly 300 deaths just in the southern part of that country, officials said, before pushing across the Bahamas and threatening to strafe a stretch of the East Coast that runs from South Florida to North Carolina.
Even as the storm continued its unceasing approach, there were measures of good news Thursday. Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the most populous in Florida, both appeared likely to avoid the brunt of the storm. The National Weather Service on Thursday night downgraded the hurricane warning in Broward to a tropical storm warning.
As Matthew approached, life’s normal routines across the southeastern coast gave way to the bedlam of a looming storm. Emergencies were declared, evacuations ordered, schools closed, scores of flights grounded and college football games canceled or postponed.
Authorities stressed the dangers of the storm, while the National Hurricane Center issued a series of foreboding bulletins warning of “potentially disastrous impacts for Florida” and “life-threatening” flooding over the coming days in that state as well as Georgia and the Carolinas. The National Weather Service warned that the gusting winds could leave some places “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
While the storm had weakened at one point during its journey, by Thursday it had surged to a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph. Late Thursday night, the National Hurricane Center forecast said the storm could potentially remain just offshore as it moves alongside Florida’s coastline, but added that Matthew was still “likely to produce devastating impacts from storm surge, extreme winds, and heavy rains” along the state’s eastern coast.
As rain began to fall in Florida, all eyes looked east as the unprecedented storm slowly approached. Hurricane conditions could extend into Georgia and South Carolina by Saturday, the National Hurricane Center warned.
More than 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders from Florida to South Carolina, most of them in Florida, where the state opened dozens of shelters to house them.
President Obama signed emergency declarations for Florida, South Carolina and, late Thursday, Georgia, ordering federal aid and allowing federal authorities to coordinate disaster relief efforts in those states.
Scott had already declared a state of emergency in Florida, as have his counterparts in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Obama spoke by telephone with all four governors Thursday to discuss preparations for the storm, saying he is committed to providing the federal resources needed to respond, the White House said.
Across the southeast, waves of schools shuttered their campuses and closed government offices. Colleges from Florida International University in Miami and the University of Central Florida in Orlando canceled classes, as did schools as far north as the University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston.
The University of Florida called off its game against Louisiana State on Saturday, and Central Florida postponed a scheduled football game against Tulane. South Carolina pushed back its home game against Georgia by a day, bumping it to Sunday.
Airlines canceled more than 2,800 flights set to travel through Florida’s airports on Thursday and Friday, according to FlightAware.com. Even mainstays of Florida life were impacted: Walt Disney World said it would close early on Thursday and remain closed Friday, as did SeaWorld in Orlando and Universal’s parks.
Floridians either fled their homes or huddled with supplies after making the customary last-minute trips to Publix for bottled water, bread and peanut butter. In some cases, people headed inland or to safer ground with friends or family, while others planned to have hurricane parties to pass the hours spent locked down.
Not long before midnight Thursday, with the first impacts of Matthew being felt in the state, Scott’s office said that more than 95,000 people had lost power due to the storm.
In Volusia County along Florida’s central Atlantic coastline, more than 2,000 residents sought refuge in schools. Dozens of residents outside Hinson Middle School in Daytona Beach were turned away when it had filled to capacity by mid-morning and were referred to others in the area.
“This isn’t Katrina,” Garry Winterrowd of Daytona Beach said. “They are treating us well here.”
For Michelle Adoga, a 16-year-old college student from Nigeria, the storm marked her first experience with a hurricane. With her family across the globe, Adoga reclined on a table in the school’s cafeteria listening to music on her cellphone.
“We don’t have hurricanes in Nigeria,” Adoga said. “I didn’t even know what a hurricane was until yesterday.”
Scott said Thursday he had activated more than 3,500 Florida National Guard members, but he told residents not to view them as an escape valve for anyone who decides not to evacuate.
“We should not be putting people’s lives at risk because you made the foolish decision not to evacuate,” he said during a briefing Thursday afternoon.
Interstate 95 through northern Florida appeared largely abandoned during the afternoon rush hour. Drivers heading away from Jacksonville, the south’s most populous city, heeded warnings from Scott and other officials that they had heard before.
“I wasn’t going to leave, but it is starting to look bad,” said Elaine Green, 68, a retired registered nurse, at a rest stop south of Jacksonville, where she lives near the beach. “This could be like all the other times. They always say evacuate, evacuate. … If it bad as they say, then, okay, I will be glad I left.”
In Jacksonville’s Riverside-Avondale neighborhood, west of downtown, residents talked over whether to leave with their neighbors.
“I’m getting the hell out of here,” said a tall, pony-tailed man stuffing loose clothes and towels and blankets into his Chevy SUV. “I’m packing up my dog and getting out of here.”
Forecasters warned of broad dangers posed by what they called a “life-threatening” storm, the first major hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. Last month, Hurricane Hermine had slammed into Florida’s Gulf Coast before it was quickly downgraded to a tropical storm.
Before the storm made it to Florida, the Bahamas took a punishing blow on Thursday after a slight wobble in the track kept Matthew’s strong inner core among the islands longer than expected. Matthew blasted Nassau with extreme wind gusts of at least 100 mph that toppled palm trees and ripped the roofs off homes. The wind was so strong that the country’s official weather stations went offline during the peak of the storm, making direct observations nearly impossible.
The hurricane appears to be without comparison in modern Florida history for eastern and central Florida, and could lead to multi-billion dollar damages across the state, according to the Capital Weather Gang.
Florida Power and Light, a state’s utility, warned that up to 2.5 million people could lose power, and warned that some could face “extended outages as we rebuild parts of the grid.” The National Weather Service warned that gusting winds in parts of the state’s eastern coast could lead to structural damage to numerous homes.
As people flooded the roads to get out of town, air travel was severely restricted by the looming storm. American Airlines canceled flights Thursday through the three South Florida airports and called off travel through Orlando after 5:30 p.m. Airlines announced waivers letting travelers change flights without paying any penalty.
At the Jacksonville airport on Thursday, Arnold Paredes spent hours devising a way to get to Panama after his connection through Miami was canceled and his attempts at booking another flight were frustrated by the storm.
“We planned this trip for a year,” said Arnold, 42, while his wife, who said she had given up before they left their home this morning, flipped through a magazine. “Vacation, to get away from everything.”
He planned to rent a car and head inland to find an open airport. “I am not ready to give up,” he said.
Further south in coastal Broward County, a crowd kept swimming and surfing in the churning waters off Fort Lauderdale’s beaches.
In coastal Broward County, winds peaked at nearly 60 miles per hour Thursday afternoon, according to local reports. The entire county remained under a voluntary evacuation advisory as Florida’s east coast braced for Hurricane Matthew’s impact. That didn’t stop a crowd of unapologetic enthusiasts from swimming and surfing in the churning waters of Fort Lauderdale’s beaches.
“Hurricanes are the only time we get waves,” said Gia Tsavalos, 34, who lives west of Delray Beach. Tsavalos was riding the waves and ignoring officials’ safety warnings in Fort Lauderdale after being chased off a beach in nearby Hollywood by a lifeguard patrol.
Near the beach, Dwayne Bennett, 40, of Tamarac, brought his children — Amaya, 5, and Jayden, 11 — to see the natural spectacle. “We were bored at home,” said Bennett, who declined the requests from his children to go swimming.
Just across the street, patrons in flip-flops and undershirts gathered at the Elbo Room, a popular bar. Shirtless young men rode their bikes around town and, just west of the beach, fishermen sheathed in bright yellow raincoats cast their fishing lines into canals.
“It’s not that we don’t respect the storm. We do,” said Buddy Mountcastle, 48, of Margate. “My home is all boarded up. We’re protected.”
While Florida prepared for the country’s first brush with Matthew, other states were getting ready for the storm to rake across their communities.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) followed the evacuations of Charleston and Beaufort counties — home to more than half a million people — with more evacuation orders along some of the state’s coastal areas.
Authorities in South Carolina also said voters there would extend deadlines for voter registration, a move that came amid questions about how the storm would impact the upcoming presidential election. Scott said Thursday that he would not extend voting registration due to the storm.
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) announced mandatory evacuations in six of the state’s coastal counties, a stretch east of Interstate 95 with more than 530,000 residents. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said he remained “cautiously optimistic” about the hurricane’s projected impact on his state, but said residents were not in the clear yet and asked them to keep monitoring the storm.
On Wednesday, Obama had scrapped two planned events in Florida on Wednesday and visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters in Washington for a hurricane briefing instead. He urged residents to be ready and pay attention to warnings from authorities.
“Even if you don’t get the full force of the hurricane, we are still going to be seeing tropical force winds, the potential for a storm surge, and all of that could have a devastating effect,” he said after the briefing.
Floridians readying for the storm are a mix of veterans who have been through this before and those unaccustomed to the routines after the state has seen an influx of new residents in the years since Wilma.
At a Home Depot near Stirling Road in Hollywood, two employees secured seven sturdy pieces of plywood to the roof of black Hyundai sedan.
“It took us about three hours to get in and out,” Alex Ozenaski said outside a Home Depot in Hollywood while two employees secured plywood to the roof of his black Hyundai. “We had just moved to South Florida when Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005. We weren’t prepared. This time, we are almost prepared.”
Berman reported from Washington. Jason Samenow, Angela Fritz, Lori Aratani and Susan Hogan in Washington;Joshua Partlow in Haiti; Francisco Alvarado in Miami Beach, Fla.; Susan Cooper Eastman in Jacksonville; Lacey McLaughlin in Daytona Beach, Fla.; and Tal Abbady in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report. This story, first published at 8:53 a.m., is being continuously updated.