'Uninhabitable': Hurricane Matthew Could Be 'Catastrophic' for Florida

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(NBC News) Florida authorities sounded alarms not heard in years as Hurricane Matthew stayed on a path for the state's east coast overnight.

The first band of rain from Matthew arrived in Florida on Thursday, ahead of a projected landfall — or near-landfall — between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral that Gov. Rick Scott warned would be "catastrophic."

"There is no reason not to leave," Scott grimly warned as the storm, which killed at least 128 people across the Caribbean, moved ever closer.

"Do not surf. Do not go to the beach," he said. "This storm will kill you."

Latest developments:

Hurricane conditions are expected to reach some Florida hurricane warning areas overnight.

As Matthew moved on a more northerly track, hurricane warnings were downgraded to tropical storm warnings from south of Boca Raton, Fla., to north of Golden Beach.
The center of Matthew's projected path shifted slightly east late Thursday — away from shore — but the National Hurricane Center said it could still make landfall as a category 3 or 4 hurricane Friday morning.
Regardless of whether Florida gets a direct hit, Matthew is likely to produce "devastating impacts" along a long stretch of Florida's east coast, the NHC said.
President Barack Obama signed emergency declarations to speed federal aid to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

"This is like no storm in the record books," said Bryan Norcross, senior hurricane specialist for The Weather Channel, who predicted "a heartbreaking loss of life."

The National Weather Service said Matthew's storm surge — the rush of water driven to shore by wind and low atmospheric pressure — could be much stronger than the barrage that swamped the New Jersey shore during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

"A good chunk of the east Florida coast — at least right along the coast — is going to be under water because of storm surge before too long," Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel, said Thursday night.

In addition, "wind damage will be extensive," Sarsalari said. "If you're trying to ride this one out, you're probably going to be without power for a very long time."

Electric utilities reported that more than 141,000 customers were already without power shortly after midnight.

The Melbourne office of the National Weather Service warned of "devastating to catastrophic" impacts, with complete roof and wall failures and total destruction of mobile homes.

"Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months," it said.

If it makes landfall, Matthew would be the first major hurricane — category 3 or higher — to hit the U.S. mainland since Wilma in 2005.
"This is not hype, this is not hyperbole, and I am not kidding," Norcross said. "I cannot overstate the danger of this storm. Central and northern Florida have never been hit by a hurricane this strong."

At 1 a.m. ET, the "potentially disastrous" category 4 storm was 90 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral, Fla., with top sustained winds of 130 mph. The center of the storm was heading for Florida at 13 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.

The National Weather Service said Matthew's storm surge — the rush of water driven to shore by wind and low atmospheric pressure — could be much stronger than the barrage that swamped the New Jersey shore during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

"A good chunk of the east Florida coast — at least right along the coast — is going to be under water because of storm surge before too long," Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel, said Thursday night.

In addition, "wind damage will be extensive," Sarsalari said. "If you're trying to ride this one out, you're probably going to be without power for a very long time."

Electric utilities reported that more than 141,000 customers were already without power shortly after midnight.

The Melbourne office of the National Weather Service warned of "devastating to catastrophic" impacts, with complete roof and wall failures and total destruction of mobile homes.

"Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months," it said.

If it makes landfall, Matthew would be the first major hurricane — category 3 or higher — to hit the U.S. mainland since Wilma in 2005.

Evacuations were also under way in Georgia and South Carolina after Matthew, which hammered Haiti and strafed Cuba, began battering the Bahamas. It killed at least 122 people in Haiti alone.

Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center extended the hurricane warning Thursday north to Altamaha Sound in Georgia, while a watch was put into effect as far north as South Carolina's South Santee River.

"This is a scary storm," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said bluntly at a news conference early Thursday evening, adding: "Now is the time for the state to pray."

Beaufort Memorial Hospital in Beaufort, S.C., closed its emergency room and began evacuating its 62 patients Thursday night, the hospital said. Patients were being sent to hospitals in Georgia and more western parts of South Carolina, it said.

On Pawleys Island off the South Carolina coast, police were making residents who refused to evacuate sign a waiver with contact information for their next of kin, NBC station WMBF of Myrtle Beach reported.

The projected path of the storm at 11 p.m. ET, according to the NHC:

Thursday evening: Hurricane conditions begin arriving in Florida and move north.
Friday morning: Landfall or near-landfall between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Friday afternoon: Matthew heads up the east coast of Florida, with central and northern coastal Florida experiencing hurricane conditions throughout the day.
Friday evening and Saturday morning: Hurricane conditions begin arriving in coastal Georgia and South Carolina.
Saturday afternoon and evening: Matthew moves east, with Myrtle Beach, S.C., feeling lesser impacts.
Sunday: The storm curls southeast and then south, away from the coastal Carolinas.

About 1.5 million people up and down Florida's east coast were ordered to evacuate, and 3,500 members of the National Guard — half the state's contingent — had been activated.

In South Carolina, more than 280,000 people had been evacuated from historic Charleston and other coastal areas by early Thursday evening, Haley said — packing westbound traffic on Interstate 26 as motorists headed west. The exodus continued on Thursday as Haley ordered the evacuation of the low-lying Jasper and Colleton county areas.

While most of the evacuees exhibited remarkable patience, police said one man frustrated by the bumper-to-bumper traffic opened fire Wednesday night at Moncks Corner police in Berkeley County.

Lucas Felkel, 35, was wounded when a deputy fired back. He later died at Trident Medical Center, the county sheriff's office said. No officers or deputies were injured.

In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency in all 100 of the state's counties. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency and ordered mandatory evacuations of about 500,000 people in six coastal counties.