Florida Prepares For Worst Hurricane In Decades; 10 Million Could Lose Power In Southeast

Hurricane Matthew is expected to be the most powerful storm to strike Florida in decades. Forecasters think the hurricane then will turn away from the US coast, but could loop around to threaten Florida again as a much weaker system. (Graphic by NOAA)

Residents along a 350-mile stretch of Florida coastline from Miami to Jacksonville are preparing for a brutal beating from powerful Hurricane Matthew as the strengthening storm barrelled northward Thursday after pounding the Caribbean and Bahamas with devastating winds.

The hurricane is expected to be one of the most powerful to strike Florida in decades. Its strongest winds were blowing at around 140 mph at 11 a.m. Thursday. Its eye is expected to be offshore from Miami around 8 p.m. tonight, moving northwestward to an eventual landfall near Cape Canaveral, and follow the coastline until around Jacksonville near the Georgia-Florida border Friday night.

From there, the storm’s eye is expected to turn sharply to the east and begin moving offshore Saturday. But while the rest of the southeast coast may be spared Matthew’s powerful winds, the hurricane’s drenching rainfall likely will cause flooding in many areas already saturated by heavy rains.

Author and screenwriter John Miglis, who lives in Saint Augustine Beach south of Jacksonville, said his neighborhood was quiet Thursday afternoon.

“There’s very little traffic on the roads,” Miglis said. “Either everybody has already left or they’re hunkering down. Or they’re going to wait until the last minute.”

Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for much of the Florida coast.

In the state’s interior, some residents are uneasily eyeing a massive 150-mile levee that encircles Lake Okeechobee, a giant, shallow lake nearly as large as the state of Rhode Island. The lake’s level is controlled by two drainage canals.

The Palm Beach Post reported Tuesday that the lake’s level is more than a foot and a half higher than the preferred maximum level. More water puts more pressure on the aging levee, which was constructed after powerful hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 pushed water out of the lake and drowned thousands.

The levee is maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Corps officials told the Post that there is no danger that the levee will fail, although engineers are monitoring several small leaks in the dike.

Meanwhile, line crews are preparing to deal with power outages affecting millions of residents from southern Florida to North Carolina. Researchers with the Guikema Research Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan predict that 8 million to 10 million residents in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina will lose power during Hurricane Matthew’s trek up the coast of the southeastern US.

The number of residents expected to be without power at some point during or after the storm varies according to the proximity of the storm. Coastal residents closer to the storm’s more powerful winds are more likely to lose electricity. But even some residents well inland from the storm could be without power.

The entire Florida peninsula is expected to have at least some power outages, with most of the outages being near the coast.

About half of Georgia could have at least some power outages, and only a few counties in the northwest corner of South Carolina are expected to be unaffected. In North Carolina, scattered power outages could spread across about half the state from Charlotte eastward to the Albemarle Sound.

Listen to author Willie Drye discuss his IPPY Award-winning book, For Sale-American Paradise, with host Frank Stasio on WUNC radio’s “The State of Things,” and with Joseph Cooper on WLRN’s “Topical Currents.”

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Meet the Author
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.