CAPE CANAVERAL — A deadly Hurricane Matthew steamed toward Florida with winds of 200 km/h as hundreds of thousands of people boarded up their homes, grabbed their belongings and fled inland to escape the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said the state, its skies already darkening from early outer rain bands of the life-threatening storm, could be facing its “biggest evacuation ever.”
The Category 3 hurricane barrelled over the Bahamas and was expected to scrape nearly the entire length of Florida’s Atlantic coast beginning Thursday evening. From there, it was expected to push its way just off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina before veering off to sea.
About two million people from Florida across Georgia to South Carolina were warned to head inland. Matthew killed at least 16 people in the Caribbean as it sliced through Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas.
“This is a dangerous storm,” Scott warned. “The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida.”
Major theme parks in Orlando, central Florida, remained open but were monitoring events even as Walt Disney World cancelled Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, a special ticket event scheduled for Thursday night. Universal Orlando is also monitoring the situation. Both LEGOLAND Florida and SeaWorld Orlando are planning to close early today and remain closed on Friday.
Officials at Florida’s major airports said Thursday that they are monitoring conditions as Matthew bears down on the state and warned of delays or cancellations. On its website, Fort Lauderdale International Airport announced plans to close at 10:30 a.m. Officials advised travellers to check with individual airlines about flight plans.
The storm is forecast to near the Florida coast starting Thursday night, potentially as a Category 4 storm with 209 km/h winds. Any slight deviation could mean landfall or it heading farther out to sea. Either way, forecasters say it will come close enough to wreak havoc along the lower part of the East Coast, dumping up to 15 inches of rain in some spots. Storm surge of 5 feet to 8 feet was expected along the coast from central Florida into Georgia.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said tropical storm conditions with rain and wind are first expected in the state later Thursday morning.
Meanwhile six U.S. cruise ports have closed ahead of Matthew’s anticipated hit. According to CruiseCritic, Port Miami, Port Everglades, Port Canaveral, the port of Jacksonville, the Port of Palm Beach and the port of Charleston have all closed until further notice.
On Wednesday two special Sunwing rescue flights landed in Toronto and Montreal, flying back from Freeport, Grand Bahama and Nassau Island, Islands of the Bahamas, where they collected hundreds of Canadians anxious to return home and avoid the hurricane. Sunwing also relocated numerous passengers in their resort destinations in Cuba that also involved re-routing several flight services to bring customers home earlier.