Florida faces the most dangerous storm in living memory as Hurricane Matthew moved in from the Atlantic on Friday, threatening coastal cities with surging tides, torrential rain and 209 km-per-hour winds.
After cutting a deadly swath across the Caribbean and leaving more than 300 dead in Haiti — according to a senator from the hard-hit south of the country — the Category Four storm was to crash up against the southeastern United States early in the morning.
Over the course of the day it could scour its way up a 965-kilometre strip of coast from Boca Raton in Florida to just north of Charleston, South Carolina, driving seawater and heavy rain inland.
Only a handful of hurricanes of this strength have ever made landfall in Florida, and none since 1898 has threatened to scythe its way north along low-lying, densely populated coast into Georgia and beyond.
Evacuation orders were issued for areas covering some three million residents and major cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Savannah, Georgia lay in the path of the terrible storm.
Daytona Beach imposed a curfew that was to last until dawn on Saturday, and President Barack Obama declared emergencies in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, promising federal aid.
As the first bouts of heavy rain and powerful gusts arrived at seafront resorts presaging the storm beyond, more than 140,000 homes and businesses in Florida had lost power.
Matthew has already battered Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas and US officials are taking no chances, warning that loss of life is a virtual certainty.
“This storm is a monster,” declared Florida’s Governor Rick Scott. “I want everybody to survive this. We can rebuild homes. We can rebuild businesses… We can’t rebuild a life.”
As of 0500 GMT, the storm was about 80km east of Vero Beach — which is about a third of the way up the peninsula — and moving northwest at 21km per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.
South Florida including Miami was thus spared the worst of the storm, after it took a slight turn to the north and east.