Hurricane Matthew — carrying winds of 195 kilometres per hour — has lashed central Florida while hugging the Atlantic coast as it moves north, threatening more destruction after killing more than 800 people in Haiti.
Hurricane Matthew, the first major hurricane to threaten a direct hit on the United States in more than a decade, triggered mass evacuations of millions of people along the coast from Florida through to Georgia and into South Carolina and North Carolina.
Southern parts of Florida escaped the brunt of the storm overnight, but authorities on Friday urged people further north not to get complacent, and US President Barack Obama urged people to heed local officials’ instructions.
“I just want to emphasize to everybody that this is still a really dangerous hurricane, that the potential for storm surge, loss of life and severe property damage exists,” Mr Obama said after a briefing with emergency management officials.
He also declared a state of emergency in North Carolina ahead of Matthew’s arrival.
In Haiti, where poor rural communities were ravaged by Hurricane Matthew earlier this week, the death toll surged to at least 842 people on Friday, as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the storm, officials said.
Earlier, Matthew’s eye was brushing along the north-east coast of Florida, the US National Hurricane Centre said.
“The winds are ferocious right now,” said Jeff Piotrowski, a 40-year-old storm chaser.
The storm has cut power to almost 1.1 million homes and businesses, electricity companies said.
The outages are not as high as utilities had forecast, and are not expected to reach those levels because the storm has already passed most of the heavily populated southern part of Florida.
On Thursday, NextEra Energy Inc’s FPL power company, the biggest in Florida, forecast Matthew could leave as many as 2.5 million homes and businesses without service, some for extended periods of time.
More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
‘Worst damage potential since 1800s’: Federal Emergency unit
No significant damage or injuries were reported in West Palm Beach and other communities in south Florida, but Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he was concerned that relatively light damage could give people further north a false sense of security.
“People should not be looking at the damages they’re seeing and saying this storm is not that bad,” Mr Fugate told NBC.
Mr Fugate also said people should be aware the hurricane carried more than just ferocious winds.
“The real danger still is storm surge, particularly in northern Florida and southern Georgia. These are very vulnerable areas. They’ve never seen this kind of damage potential since the late 1800s.”
Matthew lessened in intensity on Thursday night and into Friday morning (local time), the National Hurricane Centre said.
From being an extremely dangerous category four storm, it became a category three on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, but was still a major storm.
It could either plough inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday night, the Miami-based centre said.
Death toll soars past 800 in Haiti as residents protest
At least 842 people have now been reported killed in Haiti, according to local officials, with thousands more displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighbourhoods earlier in the week.
Outbreaks of cholera, a disease that did not exist in Haiti until UN peace keepers introduced it after a 2010 earthquake that killed some 200,000 people, are already claiming more lives.
As information started to trickled in from remote areas that were cut off by the storm, it became clear at least 175 people died in villages clustered among the hills and on the coast of Haiti’s fertile western tip.
Rural clinics overflowed with patients whose wounds including broken bones had not been treated since the storm hit on Tuesday.
At least seven people died of cholera in the town of Anse-d’Hainault, likely because of flood water mixing with sewage, while another 17 cases were reported in Chardonnieres on the south coast.
Some 61,500 people were in shelters, officials said, after the storm pushed the sea into fragile coastal villages.
But with cell phone networks down and roads flooded by sea and river water, aid has been slow to reach towns and villages around the peninsula — instead, locals have been helping each other.
“My house wasn’t destroyed, so I am receiving people, like it’s a temporary shelter,” said Bellony Amazan in the town of Cavaillon. “I have nothing, my hands are empty,” said Kimberly Janvier, as dozens of residents staged an angry protest on demanding more government help.
Four people were also reportedly killed in the Dominican Republic, which neighbours Haiti.
The US has since sent some 150 military and US Agency for International Development personnel to help Haiti, Jamaica, and the Bahamas with relief efforts, officials said.
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas have been unclear since the storm passed near the capital Nassau on Thursday before moving on towards the south-eastern US coast.
The last major hurricane — classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 177 kilometres per hour — to make landfall on US shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Online Source: Abc.net.au.