Hurricane Matthew is slowly moving northwest through the Bahamas this Wednesday afternoon, October 5, as it gains back the strength it lost earlier this week when it battered Cuba and Haiti with devastating flooding and intense winds. The hurricane is on track to reach Florida on Thursday as the worst storm the state has seen in more than a decade, potentially exposing densely populated cities to extreme winds, a dangerous storm surge, and flooding rains.

The latest update from the National Hurricane Center shows that Matthew was still a major hurricane early this morning with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph, making it a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. The hurricane weakened from its long-held Category 4 intensity after interacting with rough terrain in eastern Cuba, but a favorable environment ahead of the storm—light winds, warm water, and ample moisture—will likely allow it to restrengthen into a Category 4 as it approaches Florida.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast for Hurricane Matthew as of 11:00 AM October 5, 2016. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

 
The Bahamas will take a serious hit from this major hurricane. The country’s capital of Nassau is forecast to be in the worst part of the eyewall on Thursday morning, potentially causing major damage and cutting off the country’s population center from the outside world for a time after the storm. Significant flooding will also pose a serious threat to life and property across the country’s many tiny islands.

Florida is covered with watches and warnings in anticipation of Matthew’s arrival on Thursday and Friday. A hurricane warning is in effect from Miami’s northern suburbs up the coast to Daytona Beach. Even though most hurricane forecast maps show these alerts along the immediate coastline, hurricane watches and warnings also extend inland—this hurricane warning also includes Orlando, its suburbs, and the Walt Disney World Resort. Tropical storm warnings cover southern Florida and inland parts of the state between Tampa and Orlando.

Great uncertainty exists in the forecast right now beyond Friday. The weather models are still having a hard time trying to figure out how Hurricane Matthew will interact with a ridge of high pressure parked over the western Atlantic right now. The hurricane will travel around the outer edge of the ridge as if it were a monorail. How far to the east or west the ridge extends later this week and this weekend will determine how close Matthew will come to land, as well as what it will do this weekend and early next week. Even though the Carolinas seem to be in a better position today than previous forecasts, this could change as models get a better handle on the situation.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast probability for tropical storm–force winds (39–74 mph) as Hurricane Matthew approaches the United States. Warmer colors indicate higher odds for strong winds. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

 
Strong winds and heavy rain from Hurricane Matthew extend almost 200 miles from its eye, so even if the storm doesn’t officially make landfall, the coast will still feel major impacts. Flooding rains are likely along the coast from Florida to South Carolina, possibly farther north if Matthew travels up the coast more than currently expected. Wind damage is likely, which will result in widespread power outages across the affected areas. Depending on the scale of the damage, power outages could last for several days and may stretch weeks in the hardest-hit areas.

A storm surge of 3–5 feet is possible along the coast where the hurricane warning is in effect. A storm surge, which is historically the deadliest part of a hurricane, is the flooding that results from high winds pushing seawater inland. The depth of a storm surge can be extremely localized—flooding from one spot to the next depends on the shape of the coastline, the depth of the water near shore, how strong the winds blow, and how long the strong winds last.

Hurricane Matthew has a history of destruction that should give hesitant coastal residents all the more reason to prepare for this storm’s arrival. The Weather Channel reports that Haiti and Cuba suffered “catastrophic" damage when Matthew passed through the Greater Antilles earlier this week. The most heavily damaged parts of Haiti are cut off from the outside world right now, limiting our knowledge of the potential destruction and casualties there, but photos and videos coming from the country show widespread damage from wind and flooding.