Matthew, the first major hurricane threatening a direct hit on the United States in more than 10 years, lashed Florida with heavy rains and winds after killing at least 339 people in Haiti on its destructive march north through the Caribbean.
Although the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 3 storm as it approached the U.S. mainland, winds gusts of up to 113 kph and heavy downpours were still reported across coastal communities in Florida, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.
"We are just bracing and the winds are picking up," Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry said. "A great number of our residents have taken heed to our warnings and we are certainly concerned about those that have not."
More than 140,000 Florida households were without power, according to Gov. Rick Scott. In West Palm Beach, once lit street lights and houses went dark and Interstate 95 was empty as the storm rolled through the community of 100,000 people.
Hurricane Matthew was carrying extremely dangerous winds of 121 mph after pounding the northwestern part of the Bahamas en route to Florida's Atlantic coast earlier, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Florida braces for Hurricane Matthew as it nears coast pic.twitter.com/JkIScCXbCO— AFP news agency (@AFP) October 7, 2016
Few storms with winds as powerful as Matthew have struck Florida, and the NHC warned of "potentially disastrous impacts." The U.S. National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.
"What we know is that most of the lives lost in hurricanes is due to storm surge," he said.
Some 339 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said, and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes, uprooted trees and inundated neighborhoods earlier in the week. Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic, which neighbors Haiti.
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas were still unclear as the storm passed near the capital, Nassau, on Thursday and then out over the western end of Grand Bahama Island.
The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 109 mph, to make landfall on U.S. shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
"If Matthew does make landfall along the Florida coast, this would be the most likely spot for it. Billions of dollars of facilities and equipment are at risk at Kennedy Space Center and nearby bases, which have never before experienced a major hurricane," said Jeff Masters, a veteran hurricane expert.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force, which operate the nation’s primary space launch site at Cape Canaveral, have already taken steps to safeguard personnel and equipment.
A team of 116 employees was hunkered down inside Kennedy Space Center's Launch Control Center to ride out the hurricane.
“We've had some close calls, but as far as I know it's the first time we've had the threat of a direct hit,” NASA spokesman George Diller said by email from the hurricane bunker.
Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed, and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached early on Thursday.
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened shelters for evacuees. As of Thursday morning, more than 3,000 people were being housed in 60 shelters in Florida, Scott said.
Those three states as well as North Carolina declared states of emergency, empowering their governors to mobilize the National Guard.
President Barack Obama called the governors of the four states on Thursday to discuss preparations for the storm. He declared a state of emergency in Florida and South Carolina, a move that authorized federal agencies to coordinate disaster relief efforts. Late Thursday, Obama declared an emergency in Georgia and ordered federal aid to the state.
"Hurricane Matthew is as serious as it gets. Listen to local officials, prepare, take care of each other," Obama warned people in the path of the storm in a posting on Twitter.