PORT-AU-PRINCE: Hurricane Matthew killed more than 800 people and left tens of thousands homeless in its rampage through Haiti earlier this week before it lashed Florida on Friday with rain and howling winds and rolled northward up the U.S. Atlantic coast.
The number of fatalities in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, surged to at least 842 on Friday as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the storm, according to a Reuters tally of death tolls given by officials.
Matthew, the first major hurricane that could hit the United States head on in more than a decade, triggered mass evacuations along the coast from Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina and North Carolina.
Southern Florida escaped the brunt of the storm overnight, but U.S. President Barack Obama and other officials urged people not to get complacent in the face of a storm that could be the most severe to strike northeast Florida in more than 100 years.
“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,” Obama told reporters after a briefing with emergency management officials. “People continue to need to follow the instructions of their local officials over the next 24, 48, 72 hours.”
Matthew had smashed through the tip of Haiti’s western peninsula on Tuesday with 145 mph (233 kph) winds and torrential rain. Some 61,500 people were in shelters, officials said, after the storm pushed the sea into fragile coastal villages, some of which were only now being contacted.
At least 175 people died in villages clustered among the hills and coast of Haiti’s fertile western tip. At least three towns reported dozens of fatalities, including the farming village of Chantal, where the mayor said 86 people perished, mostly when trees crushed houses. He said 20 others were missing.
“A tree fell on the house and flattened it, the entire house fell on us. I couldn’t get out,” said driver Jean-Pierre Jean-Donald, 27, who had been married for only a year.
“People came to lift the rubble, and then we saw my wife who had died in the same spot,” Jean-Donald said, his young daughter by his side, crying “Mommy.”
Cellphone networks were down and roads were flooded by sea and river water in Haiti.
FLORIDA POWER CUTS
Matthew swiped Florida on Friday with winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kph).
The city of Jacksonville could face significant flooding, the state’s governor, Rick Scott, said. The storm had cut power to some 600,000 households in Florida, he told a news conference.
At 11:00 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), Matthew’s eye, or center, was brushing the northeast Florida coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was moving at around 12 mph (19 kph) on a path that would likely take it near or over the coast of northeast Florida and Georgia through Friday night and near or over the coast of South Carolina on Saturday.
No significant damage or injuries were reported in cities and towns in south Florida where the storm brought down trees and power lines, local media reported.
In Cape Canaveral, Florida, home to the country’s main space launch site, the storm downed power lines and trees and destroyed billboards.
Matthew lessened in intensity on Thursday night and into Friday morning, the National Hurricane Center said, but was still a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity. Category 5 is the strongest.
The U.S. National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years. The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), to make landfall on U.S. shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas were still unclear after Matthew passed near the capital, Nassau, on Thursday and then moved out over Grand Bahama Island.
As of Friday morning, about 22,000 people were in Florida shelters and more had moved inland or to the state’s west coast, Scott said. Georgia and South Carolina had also opened dozens of shelters for evacuees.
South Carolina officials warned residents of potentially damaging flooding and storm surge once Matthew makes its way to the state.
“There is nothing safe about what’s getting ready to happen,” South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told a news conference.