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Hurricane Matthew strengthens, could pose threat to South Florida

(National Hurricane Center)
Sun Sentinel

One of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes in recent history drenched coastal Colombia Saturday and roared across the Caribbean on a course that still puts Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba in the path of potentially devastating winds and rain.

Matthew briefly reached the top hurricane classification, Category 5, and was the strongest Atlantic hurricane since Felix in 2007.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Matthew’s winds had slipped from a peak of 160 mph to a still-devastating 145 mph and it was expected to reach the eastern part of Jamaica on Monday.

The forecast track would carry it across Cuba and into the Bahamas, with an outside chance of a brush with Florida, though that would be several days away. “It’s too early to rule out what impacts, if any, would occur in the United States and Florida,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman at the Hurricane Center.

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 As of 11 a.m. Saturday, hurricane watches have been issued for Haiti and Jamaica.

As Matthew skimmed past the northern tip of South America there were reports of heavy flooding and at least one death — the second attributed to the storm.

Authorities said at least 18 houses were damaged along the La Guajira peninsula of Colombia, which has been suffering from a multi-year drought. They said a 67-year-old man was swept away to his death by a flash flood in an area where it hadn’t rained for four years.

Local TV broadcast images of cars and tree trunks surging though flooded streets in coastal areas.

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Colombian authorities closed access to beaches and urged residents living near the ocean to move inland in preparation for storm surges that they said would be most intense on Saturday.

There was also concern that heavy rain across much of the country could dampen turnout for Sunday’s nationwide referendum on a historic peace accord between the government and leftist rebels.

 This storm’s path is particularly difficult to predict. Scenarios for its impact on South Florida range from a direct hit to a little bad weather along the coast.

Current tracks show the storm passing just east of the peninsula but “there is a significant uncertainty in where the turn will occur and how fast Matthew will move afterward,” the National Weather Service said Friday.

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Hurricanes typically travel along the southern rim of the Bermuda high, a region of high pressure that acts like a giant hand, stiff-arming hurricanes away from the north. But eventually that high pressure weakens, and it’s at this point, somewhere south of Cuba, that Matthew is expect to wheel to the north, drawn by a high-level system of low pressure.

Exactly where this turn takes place could govern the storm’s impact on South Florida.

“Any small deviation of the track that happens within the next 24 to 48 hours has a significant impact for moving closer or farther away from South Florida,” National Weather Service meteorologist Anthony Reynes said during a Friday morning briefing.

Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement late Friday afternoon announcing the activation of the state’s emergency operations center and calling on state residents to prepare.

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“With Hurricane Matthew now being upgraded to a major Category 4 hurricane, we all must remain vigilant and be prepared for any impacts this storm may have on our state,” he said.

“While the National Hurricane Center’s current forecast predicts Matthew traveling east of Florida, we all know that the track of these storms can quickly change, which is why it is imperative that all Floridians and visitors continue to monitor Hurricane Matthew and make sure to have a plan in place in the event of severe weather.”

For South Florida, the period of greatest risk will likely be Tuesday through Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

“We can’t tell the folks here in South Florida whether you will or will not get the effects of Matthew but the potential is there,” Hurricane Center Director Richard Knabb said Friday. “The forecast could change a lot during the weekend.”

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Matthew, which was producing sustained winds of 160 mph Friday, went from a Category 2 hurricane to a Category 5 in a few hours, surprising forecasters with the speed of its intensification.

“Matthew has continued to rapidly strengthen at a remarkable rate today,” the National Hurricane Center said in its 5 p.m. discussion of the storm.

Category 5 represents the second-highest level on the hurricane intensity scale. The National Hurricane Center says they can cause “catastrophic damage.”

“A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse ,” the hurricane center said. “Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

dfleshler@sun-sentinel.com, 954-356-4535


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