MIAMI (AP/WAVY) — The National Hurricane Center downgraded Hurricane Matthew to a Category 3 storm during its 2:00 am update. Matthew is still very powerful as it skirts Florida’s east coast.
Leaving more than 280 dead in its wake across the Caribbean, Hurricane Matthew steamed toward Florida with potentially catastrophic winds of 130 mph Thursday, and 2 million people across the Southeast were warned to flee inland.
Matthew is the most powerful storm to threaten the U.S. Atlantic coast in more than a decade.
As it moved north in the evening, Matthew stayed about 100 miles or more off South Florida, sparing the 4.4 million people in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas from its most punishing effects.
“We were lucky this time,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said.
As of 2:00 a.m. EDT, Matthew was about 45 miles east/southeast of Fort Pierce, moving toward the northwest at about 13 mph. With hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 60 miles, Matthew could wreak havoc along the coast even if its center stayed offshore.
The hurricane is instead expected to blow ashore — or come dangerously close to doing so — early Friday north of West Palm Beach, which has about 1.1 million people, and then slowly push north for the next 12 hours along the Interstate 95 corridor, through Cape Canaveral and Jacksonville, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters said Matthew would then probably hug the coast of Georgia and South Carolina over the weekend before veering out to sea — perhaps even looping back toward Florida in the middle of next week as a tropical storm.
“This is a dangerous storm,” Gov. Scott warned as the skies began darkening from Matthew’s outer bands of rain. “The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida.”
Millions of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were told to evacuate their homes, and interstate highways were turned into one-way routes to speed the exodus. Florida alone accounted for about 1.5 million of those told to clear out.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal ordered an evacuation of the entire Georgia coast, covering more than a half-million people. It was the first hurricane evacuation along the Georgia coast since 1999, when the state narrowly escaped Floyd.
The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the U.S. was Wilma in October 2005. It sliced across Florida with 120 mph winds, killing five people and causing an estimated $21 billion in damage.
As people hurried for higher ground, authorities in South Carolina said a motorist died on Wednesday after being shot by deputies in a gun battle that erupted after he sped away from a checkpoint along a storm evacuation route.
The coordinator for Haiti’s Interior Ministry in the area hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew says the confirmed death toll in that southwestern zone is now 283.
Emmanuel Pierre told The Associated Press late Thursday that he expects the toll to rise as authorities reach remote places that were left isolated by the storm.
The overall death toll in Haiti is not clear.
Bodies have started to appear as waters recede in some areas two days after Matthew smashed concrete walls, flattened palm trees and tore roofs off homes.
Forecasters said Matthew could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet.
The forecast for Hurricane Matthew has shifted further to the south within the last 36 hours, and the storm could miss the entire Hampton Roads region altogether.
The National Hurricane Center projects that Matthew will miss Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and only clip southern portions of North Carolina through the early morning hours of Sunday.
By Sunday, the European model and the GFS (American) model agree that the center of Matthew will stay offshore, south of the Outer Banks. WAVY meteorologist Jeremy Wheeler reported that the track for Matthew shifted overnight into Wednesday, as the storm moved toward the Bahamas.
Eastern North Carolina could still see rain this weekend, although expected rainfall totals have dramatically decreased in the last 48 hours. The National Weather Service predicts that region could see between 3 and 6 inches of rain.
By Sunday morning, Matthew could be a Category 1 hurricane as it turns away from the Hampton Roads region.
The Virginia Department of Emergency Management says residents should still get ready in case Matthew shifts back to the north. Officials say you should still watch for updates on the storm and follow instructions from local officials, when provided.
VDEM officials say they are continuing to get ready for Matthew, in case the track of the storm does shift back toward the region. The Virginia Emergency Operations Center is at partial activation at the moment.
A mandatory evacuation was issued Tuesday for Oracoke Island, but the order has since been suspended.
McCrory warned North Carolina residents Wednesday to remain cautious, despite the welcomed shift in Matthew’s track.
“This is a large storm and its impacts could be felt well inland. It is still extremely important for residents in the eastern parts of the state to stay informed in case you need to evacuate and always follow the directions of your local emergency officials,” McCrory said.
The U.S. Coast Guard in Wilmington set Port Condition X-Ray on Thursday for all waterways in North Carolina. Pleasure craft are being advised to take shelter ahead of anticipated Gale force winds.
Storm surge impacts from Matthew are expected to be minor for eastern North Carolina, with some areas seeing moderate flooding, according to a Thursday morning briefing from the National Weather Service (NWS).
The NWS says oceanfront areas could still see high surf and breaking waves, which could result in minor erosion and overwash. The threat for tornadoes is now very low, according to the NWS, but there is still a potential for tropical storm-force winds.
Dare County could see winds of 35 mph, with gusts up to 55 mph possible.The strongest winds could hit that region late Saturday afternoon and continue through Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.