Hurricane Matthew downgraded to Category 3 storm as it pummels the US southeast coast

Miami,Oct7:Hurricane Matthew’s howling wind and driving rain pummeled Florida early Friday, starting what’s expected to be a ruinous, dayslong battering of the Southeast coast. The strongest winds of 120 mph were just offshore, but Matthew’s wrath still menaced more than 500 miles of coastline.

Hurricane Matthew was downgraded to a Category Three storm Friday as it churned just off Florida and threatened to pummel the US southeast after wreaking havoc in the Caribbean.

Florida, which is facing its most dangerous storm in living memory, can expect Matthew to move near or over the coast overnight, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported.

It downgraded the storm to a still-powerful Category Three, on a scale of five, and said it would remain as such as it moved near the state`s coast, with some additional weakening over the next 48 hours.

Two million people were warned to flee inland as the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade charged toward Florida. Matthew left more than 280 dead in its wake across the Caribbean. “This storm’s a monster,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned as Matthew started lashing the state. “I’m going to pray for everybody’s safety.”

The number of homes and businesses without power jumped by the hour as the storm edged closer to the coast. More than 200,000 were in the dark by early Friday. The winds picked up along Vero Beach, midway between West Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral, stripping away palm fronds, ripping awnings and blowing sand that stung the face. Waves crashed on the beach, and rain came in short bursts.

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, freeing up federal money and personnel to protect lives and property. The Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and the Orlando airport planned to do so as well. The Palm Beach International Airport reported a wind gust of 50 mph with the center of the storm 70 miles offshore, the National Hurricane Center said. Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights Thursday and Friday, many of them in or out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Amtrak suspended train service between Miami and New York, and cruise lines rerouted ships to avoid the storm, which in some cases will mean more days at sea. Orlando’s world-famous theme parks — Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld — all closed.

“I never get time off. I’m a little sad,” tourist Amber Klinkel, 25, of Battle Creek, Michigan, lamented at Universal.

Patients were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations. Thousands of people hunkered down in schools converted to shelters, and inland hotels in places such as Charlotte, North Carolina, reported brisk business.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA no longer has to worry about rolling space shuttles back from the launch pad to the hangar because of hurricanes, since the shuttle fleet is now retired. But the spaceflight company SpaceX was concerned about the storm’s effect on its leased seaside pad.

The last Category 3 storm or higher to hit the US was Wilma in October 2005. It sliced across Florida with 120 mph winds, killing five people and causing an estimated $21 billion in damage. The coordinator for Haiti’s Interior Ministry in the area hit hardest by Hurricane Matthew said the confirmed death toll in that southwestern zone was 283. Emmanuel Pierre told The Associated Press late Thursday that he expects the toll to rise as authorities reach remote places that were left isolated by the storm.

The eye of the “extremely dangerous” hurricane was moving closer to Florida and was expected to be near or over the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday, the NHC said.

As of 2:00 am (0600 GMT) Matthew was located around 45 miles (70 kilometers) east of Vero Beach, which is about a third of the way up the peninsula.

Wind gusts of up to 70 miles per hour had been reported in the city, while the eye of the storm was producing maximum sustained winds of 120 mph.

Hurricane conditions were expected to reach Florida over the next several hours, with life-threatening flooding during the next 48 hours from Florida to southern North Carolina.

Some six to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) of rain were expected in the same areas, with isolated totals near 15 inches.

Before arriving off the US coast, Matthew cut a deadly swath across the Caribbean, leaving more than 300 dead in Haiti — according to a senator from the hard-hit south of the country — as a Category Four storm.

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 the low-lying, densely populated coast into Georgia and beyond.