ABC News(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) — Hurricane Matthew battered the Florida coast Friday morning with powerful winds, potentially devastating storm surges and torrential rain, leaving nearly one million without power as officials made last-minute appeals for any remaining holdouts to get out of harm’s way.
Matthew also claimed its first U.S. victims after the St. Lucie County Fire District confirmed two people — an 82-year-old male and 58-year-old female — died overnight. Emergency officials could not get to them after suspending operations because of the storm.
The hurricane had already claimed hundreds of lives as it tore through Haiti and other Caribbean nations.
The National Hurricane Center downgraded the storm to a Category 3 hurricane with 120 mph winds at 2 a.m. ET Friday. The deadly storm is projected to run parallel to the shore over the next two days, producing a potentially devastating storm surge of up to 10 feet over about 500 miles of coast that stretches from Florida to Georgia and up into South Carolina.
As of 11 a.m. ET, Hurricane Matthew’s center of the eye was 35 miles east-northeast of Daytona Beach, Florida and moving north-northwest at 12 mph.
More than 920,000 customers are without power in Florida.
No other Atlantic storm on record has packed such powerful winds for such a prolonged period as Hurricane Matthew, ABC News meteorologists said.
The potential for a destructive storm surge, coupled with up to 15 inches of rain expected in isolated areas, has officials fearing catastrophic flooding.
Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, told ABC’s Good Morning America Friday, “This is a big major hurricane that is just offshore and it is fully capable of producing life-threatening storm surge.”
“If you are in an area that emergency managers told you to evacuate and they’re telling you to go, you absolutely have to go now,” Knabb said. “Your life could depend on it.”
“We know from hurricane history that water takes nine out of ten lives in landfall,” he said. “Matthew is going to write some history. The key here is you don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want to be writing up a report … [on] fatalities and you’re one of them.”
About 3.1 million people were told to evacuate in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Officials in those states have urged coastal residents to head inland as the most powerful Atlantic storm in more than a decade continued on its path along the coast.
President Obama Friday morning urged residents to pay attention to their local officials. While the focus of the storm is on Florida right now, he warned Georgia residents to pay attention, as the storm will likely move north.
“We can always replace property,” Obama said, “but we can’t replace lives.”
Hurricane warnings covered hundreds of miles of Florida’s east coast from just south of the city of Jupiter to the state line. A major hurricane has not struck Florida in over a decade.
More than 1.5 million Floridians were ordered to evacuate. Schools across most of the state were closed for the rest of the week as the governor deployed 3,500 National Guard troops to assist in storm preparations.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. There were 22,000 people in our shelters,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said on GMA Friday.
In Brevard County, Florida, the National Weather Service declared an extreme wind warning Friday morning as the western eye wall of the storm brushed by Cape Canaveral, home of the Kennedy Space Center, producing wind gusts in excess of 100 mph.
The National Weather Service in Jacksonville warned residents that “catastrophic damage” is anticipated for coastal areas and areas along the St. John’s River. Forecasters in Jacksonville warned of a “worst-case storm surge scenario” and said “if a direct impact occurs, this will be unlike any hurricane in the modern era.”
The governor said on GMA, “We’ve been blessed that we haven’t had a direct hit,” however “with the hurricane force winds we’re going to see a lot of storm surge.”
Scott told reporters later Friday morning that he’s particularly concerned about storm surge and there is a potential for significant flooding in Jacksonville. He said damage assessments are starting to come this morning from South Florida.
Scott told reporters later Friday morning so far there are “no reports of significant damage.”
He said, even though the storm has passed half the state, “this is not over” and the storm “still has time to make a direct hit.”
Scott had urged coastal residents to move to safe ground Thursday, warning, “This storm will kill you.”
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal ordered mandatory evacuations east of I-95, along the entire Georgia coast, which covers beach spots including Tybee Island and Brunswick. About 522,000 people were urged to evacuate.
“I also encourage the voluntary evacuation of residents in low-lying coastal areas west of I-95,” Deal said Thursday. “I urge Georgians in the affected areas to remain calm, be prepared and make informed, responsible decisions as we continue to monitor Hurricane Matthew’s path.”
Deal said that 125 miles of roadway have been made one-way routes to ease evacuations and that 65 National Guardsmen have been deployed to help with traffic. He said he hopes residents will heed the warnings.
“We are being cautious, but we don’t want people to panic,” he said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “I don’t intend to prosecute anyone for not leaving. I think Mother Nature will take care of them.”
Deal told later reporters Thursday night, “This is not Southern hospitality we are inviting to Matthew — we hope he leaves as soon as possible.”
In South Carolina, where the life-threatening storm is expected to make landfall around 8 a.m. Saturday, Gov. Nikki Haley is urging anyone who hasn’t evacuated to leave Friday.
About 310,000 people have evacuated, Haley said Friday morning, adding that she asked everyone who hasn’t left yet to evacuate, as the state prepares for major storm surges, winds, wet grounds, falling trees and power outages.
Speaking publicly for the last time before South Carolina went into storm mode, Haley said there is “nothing safe about what’s getting ready to happen.”
About 1.1 million people were ordered to move from coastal areas.
Most of the state’s public schools and government officers are shuttered for the remainder of the week.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for all of the state’s 100 counties on Thursday.
McCrory said Friday rainfall could potentially reach 15 inches and he said he’s very concerned about additional flooding and power outages.
He said residents “should prepare for prolonged power outages.”
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