MIAMI-Hurricane Matthew unleashed torrential rains and up to 120 mile-an-hour winds as it hugged the Florida coast Friday, after a blast through the Caribbean.

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.

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 percent 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.







Data improves forecasts, but uncertainties remain

WASHINGTON-With modern technology, people can watch hurricanes churn in real time and forecasts are on-target up to seven days in advance - but experts say some puzzling storm traits are harder to solve.

Using hurricane hunter aircraft, converted military drones, weather balloons and satellites that examine cyclones under various angles, “our observations are really telling us what is happening now,” says Frank Marks, director of the Hurricane Research Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And also those observations are phenomenally useful to improving our ability to predict,” he told AFP in an interview.

All the collected data is immediately transmitted to meteorologists and entered into computer models that produce forecasts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

Marks describes forecasts as simply “what we think might happen,” saying experts’ ability to make them has “improved dramatically for the last 35 years.” When he began his career in 1980, forecasts could look ahead about two days. Now, they are can project what may be on the way a full week in advance. Forecasts are honed as storms approach land, enabling the authorities to better evaluate the need for evacuations, says Marks, who was readying a new eight-hour observation flight overnight Thursday-Friday.

According to NASA, some 100 million people live at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from a coastline and are therefore potentially at risk of a powerful hurricane.

Even though predictions of hurricanes’ paths have improved, forecasting storms’ intensity remains a problem. Experts still do not fully understand why some five percent of tropical storms suddenly accelerate and become hurricanes.

Matthew, for example, became a Category One hurricane on September 30, the lowest on the 1-5 scale.

Within 18 hours, it had strengthened to a Category Five hurricane with winds of more than 125 miles (200 kilometers) per hour.

“Even if science were perfect, even with all the right equations, we cannot forecast rapid intensification because there is an element of what appears to be randomness,” said Owen Kelley, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“We cannot perfectly measure the initial state of the atmosphere, the temperature and wind,” he added. “So in some situations, it will make the forecast wrong.”

This “weakness of the system” was only fully realized about 10 years ago, he said. He also pointed out that sometimes, forecasts about landfall remain uncertain until the very last hours.

In the case of Matthew, forecasts at one point on Thursday showed it could hit Florida within 12 hours. But Kelley said the Category 4 storm was approaching the coast at an angle, which could have brought it to land up to six hours earlier and 60 miles closer or further than expected.

Knowledge about the role of global warming in the formation of potent hurricanes has improved over the past decade, but is also not fully understood, Marks said.

Some of the variation in hurricanes, from active seasons seen in the 1940s and 50s to less active periods of the 1970s and 80s, come down to fluctuations in the North Atlantic Oscillation, a weather phenomenon that influences atmospheric pressure.

“Over the last 35 years, I have not seen any signal that there has been a notable change,” said Marks, cautioning that he is not a climate scientist. “But I think 30 years is probably too short for looking at this kind of thing.”