Hurricane Matthew pelted Florida with heavy rains as the deadly storm steamed ever closer to the coast with potentially catastrophic winds of 130 mph Thursday.
Two million people across the Southeast were warned to flee inland.
It was the most powerful storm to threaten the U.S. Atlantic coast in more than a decade, and had already left more than 280 dead in its wake across the Caribbean.
Although 21 WFMJ-TV Chief Meteorologist Eric Wilhelm says Matthew will have no impact on the Mahoning Valley, people here are still concerned about the impact on the states where they have friends and family.
Rick Toman is a Youngstown native who moved to Melbourne, Fla., in early September. He and his wife traveled south to Palm Bay to weather the hurricane with his wife’s family.
“We’re in a pretty big house that was built with storm shutters and concrete block, so I think we’re in a pretty good
position to wait out the storm,” Toman said.
Toman was a critical-care nurse at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital before moving to Florida to join a nurse anesthesia program. His wife works at a hospital in Melbourne, Fla., as a licensed counselor and is scheduled to be at work Saturday to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
At 5 p.m. Thursday, Hurricane Matthew was still 100 miles southeast of the Florida coast. Toman described the neighborhood near his sister-in-law’s house in Palm Bay as calm, noting that children were still playing outside despite the darkening skies and light sprinkle of rain. He said he could still hear the raps of hammers against plywood in the distance as his neighbors made their final preparations.
“I guess some people just wait to the absolute end to get ready,” he said.
Though Toman’s in-laws are veterans of prior hurricanes – including Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 – Matthew is Toman’s first major hurricane.
“I’m actually really missing Ohio right now. It was bad enough leaving right at the beginning of fall and missing the season change, but to have to deal with a hurricane on top of it right after moving is doubly disappointing,” he said.
Florida’s humid weather gave Toman more cause for worry than the ferocity of the storm itself; he knew if the power went down, the air conditioning goes as well. Veterans of prior hurricanes warned Toman that coupling the hot and muggy conditions with a lack of light and limited options to distract from the storm, things could get uncomfortable quickly.
At 6:36 p.m. Thursday, Toman still had power, but said it felt like he was only moments from the beginning of the “nasty stuff.”
New Middletown resident Alexis Domico’s parents, Andrea and Alex Domico, live in Port Orange, a city just south of Daytona Beach and directly in the projected path of the storm.
Matthew will be the Domicos’ first hurricane. Though their beachside neighbors were told to evacuate Thursday afternoon, no evacuation recommendation had been made for their neighborhood.
Alexis Domico will be waiting for their updates throughout the night as Matthew moves across Florida.
At 7 p.m., Mike Braun, a journalist for the USA Today Network and a former Vindicator designer and reporter, was leaving Daytona Beach, heading west toward Orlando. Rain was pouring on the highway as the hurricane crept closer to the Florida coast.
The pouring rain – an opening act for the stronger bands of the storm still making landfall – came at the end of what Braun described as an otherwise nice, sunny day in Daytona Beach.
“You wouldn’t want to be out there now,” Braun said.
Locally, the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport saw two flights operated by Allegiant Air, the only commercial airliner in operation at the airport, canceled today.
One flight was from Youngstown to Orlando Sanford International Airport, and the other was from Orlando to Youngstown.
Allegiant has set up a travel alert system at www.allegiantair.com/travel-alerts.
“This storm’s a monster,” Gov. Rick Scott warned as it started lashing the state with periodic heavy rains and squalls around nightfall. He added: “I’m going to pray for everybody’s safety.”
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.
By Thursday night, more than 60,000 homes and businesses were without power. Streets in Vero Beach were partially covered with water, and hotel guests in Orlando were told to stay inside, though a few sneaked out to smoke or watch the rain.
The lobby of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort was crowded with people and pets, including dogs occasionally snapping at each other. Some meals were served buffet style while other people waited more than 2 hours for a pizza delivery.
The hurricane was expected to blow ashore – or come dangerously close to doing so – early Friday north of Palm Beach County, which has about 1.4 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 it 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.
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.
“The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida,” the governor warned.
Many boarded up their homes and businesses and left them to the mercy of the storm.
“We’re not going to take any chances on this one,” said Daniel Myras, who struggled to find enough plywood to protect his restaurant, the Cruisin Cafe, two blocks from the Daytona Beach boardwalk.
He added: “A lot of people here, they laugh, and say they’ve been through storms before and they’re not worried. But I think this is the one that’s going to give us a wake-up call.”
The hurricane picked up wind speed as it closed in, growing from a possibly devastating Category 3 storm to a potentially catastrophic Category 4. Forecasters said it could dump up to 15 inches of rain in some spots and cause a storm surge of 9 feet or more.
They said the major threat to the Southeast would not be the winds — which newer buildings can withstand — but the massive surge of seawater that could wash over coastal communities along a 500-mile stretch from South Florida to the Charleston, South Carolina, area.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Florida and South Carolina, freeing up federal money and personnel to protect lives and property.
The Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and the Orlando airport planned to do so as well. The Palm Beach International Airport reported a wind gust of 50 mph with the center of the storm 70 miles offshore, the National Hurricane Center said. Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights Thursday and Friday, many of them in or out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Amtrak suspended train service between Miami and New York, and cruise lines rerouted ships to avoid the storm, which in some cases will mean more days at sea.
Orlando’s world-famous theme parks — Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld — all closed.
“I never get time off. I’m a little sad,” tourist Amber Klinkel, 25, of Battle Creek, Michigan, lamented at Universal.
Patients were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Thousands of people hunkered down in schools converted to shelters, and inland hotels in places such as Charlotte, North Carolina, reported brisk business.
At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA no longer has to worry about rolling space shuttles back from the launch pad to the hangar because of hurricanes, since the shuttle fleet is now retired. But the spaceflight company SpaceX was concerned about the storm’s effect on its leased seaside pad.
As evening fell, the winds picked up along Vero Beach, midway between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral, stripping away palm fronds, ripping awnings and blowing sand that stung the face. Waves crashed on the beach, and rain came in short bursts. About 30,000 homes and businesses were in the dark.