Thursday 8 December 2016

'It's a matter of life and death' - two million people told to evacuate their homes as deadly Hurricane Matthew roars towards mainland US

Mike Schneider and Kelli Kennedy

Published 06/10/2016 | 07:34

A woman crosses over a water canal after Hurricane Matthew passes Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 5, 2016
A woman crosses over a water canal after Hurricane Matthew passes Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 5, 2016
A woman walks past damaged housing in the Carbonera community of Guantanamo, Cuba following Hurricane Matthew, October 5, 2016
A man salvages a fan amid damaged housing in the Carbonera community of Guantanamo, Cuba following Hurricane Matthew, October 5, 2016

Nearly two million people have been urged to evacuate their homes as Hurricane Matthew roars towards Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas and along the east coast, packing power the US has not seen in more than a decade.

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Matthew was a dangerous and life-threatening Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120mph as it passed through the Bahamas and it was expected to be very near Florida's Atlantic coast by Thursday evening local time.

At least 16 deaths in the Caribbean have been blamed on the storm, with heavy damage reported in Haiti.

The storm was forecast to hit much of the Florida coast and any slight deviation could mean landfall or it heading further out to sea. Either way, it is going to be close enough to wreak havoc along the lower part of the east coast, and many people were taking no chances.

In Melbourne Beach, near Florida's Kennedy Space Centre, Carlos and April Medina moved their paddle board and kayak inside the garage and took pictures off the walls of their home about 500 feet from the coast.

They moved the pool furniture inside, turned off the water, disconnected all electrical appliances and emptied the refrigerator.

They then hopped in a truck filled with legal documents, jewellery and a decorative carved shell that had once belonged to Mrs Medina's great-grandfather and headed west to Orlando, where they planned to ride out the storm with their daughter's family.

"The way we see it, if it maintains its current path, we get tropical storm-strength winds. If it makes a little shift to the left, it could be a Category 2 or 3 and I don't want to be anywhere near it," Mr Medina said. "We are just being a little safe, a little bit more cautious."

In Fort Lauderdale, about 200 miles south, six employees at a seven-bedroom Mediterranean-style mansion packed up for an evacuation fearing any storm surge could flood the property.

The homeowners planned to move to another home they owned in Palm Beach, further from the water. Two Lamborghinis and a Ferrari had been placed inside the garage, but employee Mae White was not sure what they would do with a Rolls-Royce, Mustang and other cars still parked in the driveway.

"This storm surge. It's scary," she said. "You're on the water, you've got to go."

The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the United States was Wilma in October 2005. It made landfall with 120mph winds in south-west Florida, killing five people as it pushed through the Everglades and into the Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach area.

It caused an estimated 21 billion dollars (£16.5m) in damage and left thousands without power for more than a week. It concluded a two-year span when a record eight hurricanes hit the state.

"When a hurricane is forecast to take a track roughly parallel to a coastline, as Matthew is forecast to do from Florida through South Carolina, it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location," said National Hurricane Centre forecaster Lixion Avila.

Florida can expect as much as 10 inches of rain in some isolated areas.

In South Carolina, governor Nikki Haley for the first time reversed the lanes of Interstate 26 so all lanes of traffic were heading west and out of Charleston. Plans to reverse the lanes were put in place after hours-long traffic jams during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

The governor planned to call for more evacuations on Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state.

Florida urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast, said Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for governor Rick Scott. In Georgia, around 50,000 people were told to go.

US president Barack Obama visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency's headquarters on Wednesday to be briefed on preparations.

Airlines cancelled 1,594 flights until Friday, according to Houston-based FlightAware.com.

It said 124 flights were axed in the US, Bahamas and Haiti on Wednesday due to the storm. The most affected airports were Miami (51 flights) and Nassau, Bahamas (43 flights). It said American Airlines canceled the most flights - 63.

The website said 1,070 flights had already been cancelled in the United States for Thursday. The most-affected airports are Miami, with 512 flights, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with 287. American, with 477 flights, and Southwest, with 145 flights, led in cancellations.

For Friday, FlightAware said 400 US flights had been cancelled. Southwest axed the most, 268 flights. The airport in Orlando, Florida, was the most affected by Friday cancellations, with 253 flights withdrawn.

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