Some three million people on the US southeast coast faced an urgent evacuation order Thursday as monstrous Hurricane Matthew — now blamed for more than 100 deaths in Haiti alone — bore down for a direct hit on Florida.
Up and down the coast, highways clogged as people fled inland to escape the storm, which blasted its way through the Caribbean starting Tuesday.
Poor and vulnerable Haiti remained essentially cut in half. Interior Minister Francois Anick Joseph said at least 108 Haitians have died, with 50 killed in a single town in the south where the coastline was described as wrecked.
In its latest target, the storm slammed the Bahamas Thursday, blowing off roofs, downing trees and knocking out power. Weather forecasters working out of Nassau airport had to flee for their lives.
A hotel employee in Nassau described the whole glass entrance of the building being blown in by fierce 100 mph (160 km) winds.
“You could see the wind was pushing it and pushing it, and it was shaking,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because she did not speak for the hotel. “I screamed out as it shattered in the lobby.”
Matthew is predicted to be very near or over the east central coast of Florida Thursday night or early Friday.
As US gas stations ran dry, frantic shoppers flocked to stores for essentials.
They snapped up batteries, transistor radios, bread, canned goods, bottled water, ice, pet food, toilet paper and other stuff to gird for what Florida Governor Rick Scott warned would be a devastating, killer storm, with winds howling at up to 150 miles per hour (240 kph).
“Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate,” Scott told a news conference. “Time is running out.”
Matthew has regained strength as it approaches Florida and was upgraded a notch Thursday to Category Four by the National Hurricane Center on its 1-5 scale.
– 18-foot waves –
Around 1.5 million coastal dwellers are under an evacuation order in Florida alone. More than a million others in South Carolina and other coastal states were also told to escape the path of the storm, which first made landfall in Haiti Tuesday.
Mandatory evacuations were also ordered in six coastal counties in Georgia that are home to some 520,000 people.
Miami International Airport cancelled 90 percent of its incoming and outgoing flights on Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center called Matthew the strongest in the region in decades.
It said waves whipped up by the hurricane could be as high as 18 feet (5.5 meters) — nearly as tall as a two-story building. Debris tossed into the air by the storm will be capable of blasting through buildings and cars, the NHC said in a bulletin.
Scott said the forecast is for storm surges of five to nine feet (1.5 to 2.7 meters), not counting the waves on top of that.
“Stop and think about that,” he said. “Waves will be crashing on your roof if you’re right close to where the storm surge is happening and you’re close to where the waves are.”
He said power outages, possibly lengthy, are a near certainty.
Sixty elementary and other schools in Florida have been turned into shelters, and so far some 3,000 evacuees are in them, Scott’s office said. South Carolina has also opened 38 shelters.
– ‘It’s pretty bad’ –
Amid the massive flight, officials warned a worrying number of people were not heeding the evacuation order.
In South Carolina’s coastal Charleston and Beaufort counties, Governor Nikki Haley said 175,000 people had evacuated as of Thursday morning — out of 250,000 who were told to leave.
“That is not enough, we need to have more people evacuating,” she told a news conference. “If you are still sitting at home, if you have not evacuated, gas stations are getting ready to close, your pharmacies are getting ready to close, everything is going to leave.”
Among the holdouts in northern Florida was Judy Ruscino, 74, who said she and her husband hoped to ride out the storm in their home in Daytona Beach.
“It’s a little bit scary. I know it’s pretty bad but we have the sand, we bought food, the garage door is storm proof,” said Ruscino.
In the city of Ft. Lauderdale, outside one shelter a crowd gathered Wednesday night before it even opened. People carried suitcases and pillows, the Miami Herald reported.
“I am homeless. There is no way I can ride out a Category 3 or 4 outside,” said Ken Roberts, 59, an army veteran. “I would not make it.”
As Matthew barreled northwest, Caribbean nations continued the grim task of assessing damage and fatalities, with four dead in the Dominican Republic in addition to the surging death toll in Haiti — which until now stood at 23.
Haiti had not been hit head on by a Category Four storm in 52 years. The country’s presidential election, scheduled for Sunday, has been postponed.
The United Nations office for coordinating humanitarian affairs said half of Haiti’s population of 11 million was expected to be affected.
At least 350,000 people in Haiti, where thousands have lived in tents since the massive earthquake in 2010, need immediate assistance, the UN said.
In Cuba, where some 1.3 million people were evacuated, there were no reported fatalities but four cities in the east were cut off because roads were blocked by large chunks of rock hurled by the storm.
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