Matthew was downgraded to a Category Three storm early Friday by the National Hurricane Center, as its wind speed dropped slightly. But Florida still faced its most dangerous hurricane in living memory.
Local media showed empty streets battered by wind as horizontal rain pounded the coast at dawn, with downed power lines and trees blocking streets and keeping residents trapped in place.
The storm caused havoc as it hit Haiti’s southern coast on Tuesday, killing more than 300 people, according to a senator from the region, Herve Fourcand.
The government toll stands at 122 deaths and Radio Television Caraibes reported 264 dead. A definitive tally will take some time to collect because the damage is so intense.
Aerial footage by journalists who made it to the hardest hit towns showed a ruined landscape of metal shanties with their roofs blown away and downed trees everywhere. Brown mud from overflowing rivers covered the ground.
In the town of Jeremie, 80 per cent of the buildings were knocked down, said the NGO Care.
That town of 30,000 “is completely destroyed,” said Jean-Michel Vigreux, director of Care Haiti.
The aerial footage is reminiscent of the aftermath of the killer earthquake that ravaged Haiti in 2010.
Further south, the town of Cayes, the third largest in Haiti, was battered by the storm for hours.
“I thought I was going to die. I looked death in the face,” said 36-year-old Yolette Cazenor, standing in front of a house smashed in two by a fallen coconut palm.
In Florida, the NHC said the storm was moving parallel to and just off the east coast before dawn Friday.
The big question was when and if it will hit the coast and how: A direct hit would have devastating impact, but a sideswiping blow could still be catastrophic.
Over the course of the day, Matthew could scour its way up a 600-mile (965-kilometer) strip of coast from Boca Raton in Florida to just north of Charleston, South Carolina, driving seawater and heavy rain inland.
Only a handful of hurricanes of this strength have ever made landfall in Florida, and none since 1898 has threatened to scythe its way north along the low-lying, densely populated coast into Georgia and beyond.
As the first bouts of heavy rain and powerful gusts arrived at seafront resorts presaging the storm beyond, more than 400,000 homes and businesses in Florida had lost power.
Evacuation orders were issued for areas covering some three million residents and major cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Savannah, Georgia lay in the path of the terrible storm.
Matthew has already battered Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas and US officials are taking no chances, warning that loss of life is a virtual certainty.
“This storm is a monster,” declared Florida’s Governor Rick Scott. “I want everybody to survive this. We can rebuild homes. We can rebuild businesses… We can’t rebuild a life.”
As of 1100 GMT, the storm was about 35 miles east of Cape Canaveral — about half way up the peninsula — which is home to the Kennedy Space Center. It was moving northwest at 14 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.
South Florida including Miami was thus spared the worst of the storm, after it took a slight turn to the north and east.
The storm will threaten Florida’s beaches and ports with ferocious, howling wind and storm surges of up to 11 feet.
“And when you get the wind you will get immediate flooding, strong rip current, beach erosion. The risk of tornados,” Scott warned.
“Think about this: 11 feet (3.3 meters) of possible storm surge. And on top of that, waves. So if you are close, you could have the storm surge and waves over your roof.”
The National Weather Service issued a statement with a stark warning: “There is NO local living memory of the potential of this event. If a direct landfall occurs this will be unlike any hurricane in the modern era.”
Highways were jammed with people streaming inland to escape the storm, forecast to be strong enough to snap trees and blow away roofs or entire houses.
As US gas stations ran dry, frantic shoppers flocked to stores for batteries, transistor radios, bread, canned goods, bottled water, ice and pet food.
Earlier this week, at least four people — three of them children — were killed in Haiti’s neighbor the Dominican Republic and more than 36,500 were evacuated, with 3,000 homes destroyed, flooded or damaged.
The wealthier Bahamas, which had more time to prepare, was less badly hit and there were no reports of fatalities, but there were power outages, some roads were cut and there was property damage.