The eye of Hurricane Matthew passed north of Haiti by Tuesday afternoon, but the true impacts of the storm could unfold in the months and years to come. The country is one the least-developed places in the world and still reeling from the shock of the 2010 earthquake that killed 200,000, led to a cholera epidemic and destroyed crucialMore
The threat to the U.S. from Hurricane Matthew is increasingly coming into focus, though some of the details remain uncertain as the hurricane moves over the Bahamas after battering eastern Cuba overnight.
So far the hurricane has left considerable devastation in its wake, with major damage already clear in Cuba and details of the utter devastation to southern Haiti slowly trickling out.
Matthew is a Category 3 storm with maximum winds of 120 mph and even higher gusts. It is expected to retain major hurricane status — and has the potential to continue strengthening — as it traverses the Bahamas and comes parallel to the east coast of Florida.
Strong winds, storm surge and heavy rains are expected along parts of the Southeast U.S. coast, and officials are urging those in harm’s way to make preparations and heed all warnings and evacuation orders.
“Take the time NOW to prepare,” National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said in an email.
After pummeling Haiti as a Category 4 storm with winds up to 145 mph over Monday night, Matthew traversed the Gulf of Gonave and made its second landfall over far eastern Cuba at 8 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday.
Matthew has been a major hurricane for five days, the longest streak since Ivan in 2004. Before it weakened overnight, Matthew had stayed at Category 4 or 5 strength longer than all other Atlantic hurricanes from 2008 to 2016 combined, according to hurricane expert Phil Klotzbach.
As the storm moves away from the region, residents of Cuba and Haiti are beginning to examine the damage.
The city of Baracoa on the northern coast of Cuba saw a direct hit from the eye of the storm, facing its strongest winds. According to storm chaser Mike Theiss, the winds and storm surge have caused considerable damage. He shared photos of roof tiles and pieces of walls and other debris scattered on city streets. Cuban authorities, though, had mounted a well-coordinated evacuation effort of the most at-risk areas.
— Mike Theiss (@MikeTheiss) October 5, 2016
Haiti has likely fared far worse, though the details of the devastation there are likely to be slow to emerge, as many of the worst hit areas are remote and isolated. Damage to roads and infrastructure — such as the bridge connecting the Tiburon Peninsula to Port-au-Prince, which was washed away — will also make getting to the epicenter of the damage difficult.
One of the main concerns in Haiti were Matthew’s heavy rains, which were forecast to reach up to 40 inches in isolated spots. Those rains fell on steep terrain denuded of trees and topsoil, making it more difficult for the ground to absorb the excess water — a recipe for major floods and mudslides. Video has shown swollen rivers flowing from those mountainous areas.
There have been reports of major destruction in Les Cayes, a center of Haiti’s tourism industry.
“We lost all our crops, and have nothing left,” Daphne Thelma, a resident of Les Cayes, told The New York Times.
That crop damage has fueled concerns that Matthew’s impacts on Haiti will last for some time, as many residents depend on subsistence farming for their food. The spread of cholera with floodwaters is also a major concern.
Next in Matthew’s path is the Bahamas, where the main threat to the low-lying islands is storm surge, which is expected to reach up to 10 to 15 feet.
After Matthew plows through the Bahamas, it will begin to impact the coast of South Florida, before paralleling the coastline up through South Carolina and then heading out to sea, according to the latest NHC forecast.
The exact impacts and how severe they are will depend on just how closely Matthew tracks to land. With hurricane-force winds extending 45 miles from the center of the storm, small deviations in track can make the difference between experiencing tropical storm-force and hurricane-force winds, for example.
“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 estimate impacts this far in advance,” the National Hurricane Center wrote in its latest update on the storm.
The impacts should become clearer as the hurricane moves closer to the U.S., but officials are advising residents to prepare now by putting up storm shutters, checking evacuation zones and routes, and stocking up on non-perishable food and other essentials. The NHC director, Rick Knabb, tweeted that he had put up the storm shutters on his own home.
Currently, a hurricane warning is in effect for Lake Okeechobee and the Florida coast from north of Golden Beach to the Flagler/Volusia county line, while a watch extends from there to Fernandina Beach, encompassing Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Vero Beach, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine and Jacksonville.
Storm surge is one of the key concerns for the U.S. with this storm, particularly given the considerable development and population increase along much of the coastline under threat.
Sea level rise fueled by the warming of the oceans and melting glaciers, as well as land subsidence, has also made storm surge a bigger threat along the coast. At Fernandina Beach just north of Jacksonville, Fla., sea level has risen by 8 inches since the beginning of the 20th century and could rise another 12 inches by the middle of this century, according to Climate Central research.
The NHC has forecast 3 to 5 feet of storm surge along the coastline under a hurricane warning, though the exact amount can depend on the tidal cycle.
Matthew could also potentially bring heavy rains, particularly right along the Southeast coastline, which has the potential to exacerbate flooding conditions. A 2015 study found that compound flooding — as the combination of storm surge and rain-driven flooding is known — is a concern across large swaths of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
In anticipation of the storm, Miami-Dade County has cancelled school on Thursday and Friday. Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for some barrier islands and low-lying areas in Florida, as well as for the Charleston and Beaufort areas in South Carolina. Traffic cameras showed lanes full of cars heading out of the area.
The most recent forecasts have Matthew making a sharp turn out to sea once it reaches the area near the Florida and Georgia border, which would lessen the impacts further north.
Matthew isn’t expected to make landfall anywhere along the coast; it has been almost 11 years to the day since the last major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. This has been the case even though major hurricanes have seen an uptick in the Atlantic basin in recent decades, though it is unclear whether this trend is due to global warming or some other climate pattern.
Even hurricanes that don’t make landfall or that do so as weaker ones can cause substantial damage, as Sandy — which hit as the equivalent of a Category 1 storm — made clear.