Florida authorities sounded alarms not heard in years before a weakened Hurricane Matthew brushed up the state's east coast early Friday with gusts of up to 100 mph.
The National Hurricane Center downgraded Matthew to a Category 3 storm overnight but warned that the "eye of extremely dangerous" storm was approaching Florida.
In its 5 a.m. bulletin, it said the hurricane was "moving parallel to and just offshore" of Florida's east coast.
South Florida was spared the worst of the hurricane, getting some gusty winds and a little rain as the storm brushed by early Friday. "It's out of the woods now," The Weather Channel's Michael Palmer said.
The first band of rain from Matthew arrived in Florida on Thursday, ahead of a projected landfall — or near-landfall — between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral that Gov. Rick Scott warned would be "catastrophic."
"There is no reason not to leave," Scott grimly warned as the storm, which killed at least 128 people across the Caribbean, moved ever closer.
"Do not surf. Do not go to the beach," he said. "This storm will kill you."
- As Matthew moved on a more northerly track, hurricane warnings were downgraded to tropical storm warnings from south of Boca Raton, Fla., to north of Golden Beach.
- The center of Matthew's projected path shifted slightly east late Thursday — away from shore — but the National Hurricane Center said it could still make landfall as a category 3 or 4 hurricane Friday morning.
- Regardless of whether Florida gets a direct hit, Matthew is likely to produce "devastating impacts" along a long stretch of Florida's east coast, the NHC said.
- President Barack Obama signed emergency declarations to speed federal aid to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
"This is like no storm in the record books," said Bryan Norcross, senior hurricane specialist for The Weather Channel, who predicted "a heartbreaking loss of life."
"This is not hype, this is not hyperbole, and I am not kidding," Norcross said. "I cannot overstate the danger of this storm. Central and northern Florida have never been hit by a hurricane this strong."
At 6 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said Matthew was 25 miles east of Cape Canaveral, Fla., with top sustained winds of 120 mph. The center of the storm was heading for Florida at 14 mph. A gusts of up to 100 mph was recorded.
It added: "Although weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours, Matthew is expected to be a category 3 hurricane as it moves near the coast of Florida today."
The National Weather Service said Matthew's storm surge — the rush of water driven to shore by wind and low atmospheric pressure — could be much stronger than the barrage that swamped the New Jersey shore during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.
"A good chunk of the east Florida coast — at least right along the coast — is going to be under water because of storm surge before too long," Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel, said Thursday night.
In addition, "wind damage will be extensive," Sarsalari said. "If you're trying to ride this one out, you're probably going to be without power for a very long time."
The Weather Channel reported that electric utilities said more than 340,000 customers were without power early Friday.
The Melbourne office of the National Weather Service warned of "devastating to catastrophic" impacts, with complete roof and wall failures and total destruction of mobile homes.
LIVE BLOG: The Latest on Hurricane Matthew
"Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months," it said.
If it makes landfall, Matthew would be the first major hurricane — category 3 or higher — to hit the U.S. mainland since Wilma in 2005.
Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center extended the hurricane warning Thursday north to Altamaha Sound in Georgia, while a watch was put into effect as far north as South Carolina's South Santee River.
"This is a scary storm," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said bluntly at a news conference Thursday night, adding: "Now is the time for the state to pray."
Beaufort Memorial Hospital in Beaufort, S.C., closed its emergency room and began evacuating its 62 patients Thursday. Patients were being sent to hospitals in Georgia and more western parts of South Carolina, it said.
On Pawleys Island off the South Carolina coast, police were making residents who refused to evacuate sign a waiver with contact information for their next of kin, NBC station WMBF of Myrtle Beach reported.
The projected path of the storm at 11 p.m. ET, according to the NHC:
- Thursday evening: Hurricane conditions begin arriving in Florida and move north.
- Friday morning: Landfall or near-landfall between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral, Fla.
- Friday afternoon: Matthew heads up the east coast of Florida, with central and northern coastal Florida experiencing hurricane conditions throughout the day.
- Friday evening and Saturday morning: Hurricane conditions begin arriving in coastal Georgia and South Carolina.
- Saturday afternoon and evening: Matthew moves east, with Myrtle Beach, S.C., feeling lesser impacts.
- Sunday: The storm curls southeast and then south, away from the coastal Carolinas.
About 1.5 million people up and down Florida's east coast were ordered to evacuate, and 3,500 members of the National Guard — half the state's contingent — had been activated.
In South Carolina, more than 280,000 people had been evacuated from historic Charleston and other coastal areas by early Thursday evening, Haley said — packing westbound traffic on Interstate 26 as motorists headed west. The exodus continued on Thursday as Haley ordered the evacuation of the low-lying Jasper and Colleton county areas.
While most of the evacuees exhibited remarkable patience, police said one man frustrated by the bumper-to-bumper traffic opened fire Wednesday night at Moncks Corner police in Berkeley County.
Lucas Felkel, 35, was wounded when a deputy fired back. He later died at Trident Medical Center, the county sheriff's office said. No officers or deputies were injured.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency in all 100 of the state's counties. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency and ordered mandatory evacuations of about 500,000 people in six coastal counties.