* Death toll rises to at least 339 in Haiti
* Mass evacuations in four U.S. states
* Storm could hit Florida directly or brush coast
By Scott Malone and Gabriel Stargardter
ORLANDO, Fla./MIAMI, Oct 7 Matthew, the first
major hurricane threatening a direct hit on the United States in
more than 10 years, lashed Florida on Friday with heavy rains
and winds after killing at least 339 people in Haiti on its
destructive march north through the Caribbean.
Winds gusts of up to 60 miles per hour (100 kph) and heavy
downpours were reported in several coastal communities in
Florida as the eye of the Category 4 hurricane tracked along the
east coast of the state early on Friday.
"We are just bracing and the winds are picking up," Daytona
Beach Mayor Derrick Henry told CNN early on Friday. "A great
number of our residents have taken heed to our warnings and we
are certainly concerned about those that have not."
More than 140,000 Florida households were without power,
according to Governor Rick Scott. In West Palm Beach, once lit
street lights and houses went dark and Interstate 95 was empty
as the storm rolled through the community of 100,000 people.
Hurricane Matthew carried extremely dangerous winds of 130
mph (215 kph) as it pounded the northwestern part of the Bahamas
en route to Florida's Atlantic coast earlier, the U.S. National
Hurricane Center said.
While Matthew's winds had dropped on Thursday night, it
remained a Category 4 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of
hurricane intensity as it neared Florida, where it could either
plow inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday
night, the Miami-based center said.
Few storms with winds as powerful as Matthew's have struck
Florida, and the NHC warned of "potentially disastrous impacts."
The U.S. National Weather Service said the storm could be
the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.
Hurricane conditions were expected in parts of Florida on
Friday and a dangerous storm surge was expected to reach up to
11 feet (3.35 meters) along the Florida coast, Ed Rappaport,
deputy director of the Miami-based NHC, said on CNN.
"What we know is that most of the lives lost in hurricanes
is due to storm surge," he said.
Some 339 people were killed in Haiti, local officials said,
and thousands were displaced after the storm flattened homes,
uprooted trees and inundated neighborhoods earlier in the week.
Four people were killed in the Dominican Republic, which
Damage and potential casualties in the Bahamas were still
unclear as the storm passed near the capital, Nassau, on
Thursday and then out over the western end of Grand Bahama
It was too soon to predict where Matthew might do the most
damage in the United States, but the NHC's hurricane warning
extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida through
Georgia and into South Carolina. More than 12 million people in
the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings,
according to the Weather Channel.
The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing
sustained winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), to make landfall
on U.S. shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Jeff Masters, a veteran hurricane expert, said on his
Weather Underground website (www.wunderground.com) that
Matthew's wind threat was especially serious at Cape Canaveral,
which juts into the Atlantic off central Florida.
"If Matthew does make landfall along the Florida coast, this
would be the most likely spot for it. Billions of dollars of
facilities and equipment are at risk at Kennedy Space Center and
nearby bases, which have never before experienced a major
hurricane," Masters wrote.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force, which operate the nation's
primary space launch site at Cape Canaveral, have already taken
steps to safeguard personnel and equipment.
A team of 116 employees was bunkered down inside Kennedy
Space Center's Launch Control Center to ride out the hurricane.
"We've had some close calls, but as far as I know it's the
first time we've had the threat of a direct hit," NASA spokesman
George Diller said by email from the hurricane bunker.
'AS SERIOUS AS IT GETS'
Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were
jammed, and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as
the storm approached early on Thursday.
Scott warned there could be "catastrophic" damage if Matthew
slammed directly into the state and urged some 1.5 million
people there to evacuate.
"If you're reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the
people ... already killed," Scott said at a news conference.
"Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a
direct hit or come right along the coast."
Scott, who activated several thousand National Guard troops
to help deal with the storm, warned that millions of people were
likely to be left without power.
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened shelters for
evacuees. As of Thursday morning, more than 3,000 people were
being housed in 60 shelters in Florida, Scott said.
Those three states as well as North Carolina declared states
of emergency, empowering their governors to mobilize the
President Barack Obama called the governors of the four
states on Thursday to discuss preparations for the storm. He
declared a state of emergency in Florida and South Carolina, a
move that authorized federal agencies to coordinate disaster
relief efforts. Late Thursday, Obama declared an emergency in
Georgia and ordered federal aid to the state.
"Hurricane Matthew is as serious as it gets. Listen to local
officials, prepare, take care of each other," Obama warned
people in the path of the storm in a posting on Twitter.
Hundreds of passenger flights were canceled in south
Florida, and cancellations were expected to spread north in
coming days along the storm's path, airlines including American
Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines
At 1 a.m. EDT (0500 GMT), Matthew was about 90 miles (140
km) southeast of Florida's Cape Canaveral, the hurricane center
said. It was heading northwest at about 13 mph (20 kph) and was
expected to continue on this track through Thursday and early
Friday. The center said the storm is expected to gradually
weaken during the next 48 hours.
In Florida, fuel stations on Thursday afternoon posted "out
of gas" signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up. At a
Subco gas station in Orlando, the pumps had run dry on
The shop was a stopping point for coastal residents seeking
shelter inland. Among them was Jonas Sylvan, 44, of Melbourne,
Florida, who planned to hole up in a hotel with his wife, two
daughters and dog. "We're just trying to get away from the
coast," he said. "It's safer here."
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Neil Hartnell in
Nassau, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Nick Carey in Chicago, Harriet
McLeod in Charleston, S.C., Doina Chiacu in Washington, Joseph
Guyler Delva in Haiti, Irene Klotz and Laila Kearney; Writing by
Frances Kerry and Tom Brown; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Peter
Cooney and Christian Schmollinger)