TITUSVILLE, Fla. – As Hurricane Matthew barreled toward Central Florida, the most powerful storm to hit the region in decades, millions of people fled inland or barricaded themselves inside their homes Thursday to escape what could be dangerous flooding, widespread blackouts and 140-mph wind capable of turning debris into deadly missiles.
The storm had already left a terrifying wake in Haiti, where the death toll, still preliminary, exceeded 280 and reports from the southern city of Jeremie indicated that as much as 80 percent of the buildings had been destroyed.
Hundreds were injured, and the authorities acknowledged that the true extent of the toll was unknown.
With the hurricane now bearing down on Florida, there were mileslong traffic jams of residents struggling to get to safety after Gov. Rick Scott ordered the evacuation of low-lying areas that are home to 1.5 million people.
As anxiety grew throughout the day and night, local officials distributed leaflets and pounded on doors at mobile home parks, telling residents that their homes were not safe. The state opened more than 80 shelters with food and water, capable of taking in tens of thousands of people.
Several hours after the evacuation order, the governor was still pleading with residents to heed warnings about the Category 4 storm before rising waters cut them off from escape routes.
“It might be the difference between life and death,” he said. “I think we still have people that are not taking this seriously enough.”
By Thursday afternoon, rain, wind, and high waves were already pounding much of Florida, where a smattering of surfers ignored warnings to stay away from beaches and took to the water. Hurricane-force wind extended up to 60 miles from the storm’s center.
Forecasters and government officials said this could be the most powerful hurricane to strike the United States since 2005, the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
Forecasters said that Hurricane Matthew, moving to the northwest, would make landfall, or just skirt the coast, on Friday morning in Central Florida, with the strongest winds expected in Brevard and Volusia counties.