Matthew, the first major hurricane threatening a direct hit on the United States in more than 10 years, closed in on Florida after killing at least 339 people in Haiti on its destructive march north through the Caribbean.
Carrying extremely dangerous winds of 215 km per hour (kmph), the storm pounded the northwestern part of the Bahamas en route Florida’s Atlantic coast, the US National Hurricane Center said.
Matthew’s top sustained winds had dropped to 209 kmph by Thursday night. But it remained a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity as it neared Florida, where it could either plow inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday night, the Miami-based center said.
Few storms with winds as powerful as Matthew’s have struck Florida, and the NHC warned of “potentially disastrous impacts”.
The US National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.
Hurricane conditions were expected in parts of Florida early on Friday and a dangerous storm surge was expected to reach up to 11 feet along the Florida coast, Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the Miami-based NHC, said on CNN.
“What we know is that most of the lives lost in hurricanes is due to storm surge,” he said.
Some 339 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighbourhoods earlier in the week. Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic, which neighbours Haiti.
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas were still unclear as the storm passed near the capital, Nassau, on Thursday and then out over the western end of Grand Bahama Island.
It was too soon to predict where Matthew might do the most of its damage in the United States, but the NHC’s hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina. More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.