Hurricane Matthew on weather radar at 1:38 PM EDT as it approaches Florida. Image credit: Gibson Ridge/NOAA

 
Hurricane Matthew is an extremely dangerous hurricane this afternoon, Thursday, October 6, as it steadily makes its way toward the eastern Florida coast. This powerful hurricane is a category 4 on the Saffir Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, topping out with sustained winds of 140 mph as it spins about 135 miles to the east-southeast of Miami. Conditions in Florida will go downhill in a hurry later today, with the worst conditions spreading from south to north on Thursday night and Friday.

Matthew went through a period of rapid intensification last night and this morning. Its interaction with the rough terrain of eastern Cuba earlier this week weakened it to a low-end category 3 with 115 mph winds on Wednesday night. A category 3 is still a major hurricane, so “weakening” when it comes to this storm is a relative term. The hurricane has taken advantage of a favorable environment to ramp back up into a monstrous category 4 as it tears through the Bahamas and continues to track toward Florida. In the past two days, it's caused at least 108 deaths in Haiti.

The National Hurricane Center’s forecast for Hurricane Matthew at 11:00 AM EDT on October 6, 2016. Image credit: Dennis Mersereau

 
The National Hurricane Center expects the center of Hurricane Matthew to move along the Florida coast between Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville from Thursday night through Friday night, though even a slight westward shift would bring the eye inland and make an official landfall. Hurricane warnings are in effect for the Georgia and South Carolina coasts as forecasters expect Matthew to affect these two states on Saturday and Sunday.

This hurricane isn’t the worst-case scenario for a major storm hitting the United States, but it’s pretty close to it and a dire situation for anyone in its path. This has the potential to be the worst storm to hit the U.S. in more than a decade, and the worst storm to hit this part of Florida in generations. Even worse, Matthew will hit at an angle rather than a head-on landfall; a direct hit would create the worst conditions over a relatively small area, but by scraping hundreds of miles of coastline with the fierce winds of its intense eyewall, this storm’s forecast trajectory will expose millions of people to destructive winds and potentially deadly flooding.

Local National Weather Service (NWS) offices are not mincing words with the danger this storm poses. The language they’re using in statements to local residents is reminiscent to the “Katrina Statement” issued for the northern Gulf Coast before Katrina made landfall in 2005. NWS Melbourne, which covers parts of east-central Florida, is warning residents of “widespread extensive to devastating wind impacts,” something that has “not been experienced in Central Florida in decades.” They’re also warning residents that locations affected by strong winds and deep flooding could be “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

The effects of Hurricane Matthew will extend hundreds of miles from its eye. While coastal communities will likely see the worst wind and flooding damage, inland areas as far west as Orlando could see potentially deadly winds and widespread flooding from heavy rain. To give you an idea of how bad the storm is expected to be inland, Walt Disney World—which has only closed a handful of times in its 45-year history—will close its theme parks at 5:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday and will remain closed all day Friday.

Matthew will be a far-reaching storm that will cause extensive damage and leave behind lengthy power outages unlike anything many residents will have ever experienced. The most heavily damaged areas could be without electricity for weeks or months. Utilities like cell phones, landline phones, water, and sewer could stop working for an extended period of time.

A visible satellite image of Hurricane Matthew at 1:30 PM EDT on October 6, 2016. Image credit: NOAA/NASA

 
Meteorologists expect a storm surge of 6 to 9 feet across coastal areas between Vero Beach, Florida, and Edisto Beach, South Carolina. This includes the Florida cities of Melbourne, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville, as well as the entire Georgia coast and areas southwest of Charleston, South Carolina. This surge of sea water pushed inland by the wind will damage or destroy everything in its path. The water will be deep enough in spots to inundate single-story homes and businesses to the roof. Roads near the coast will be impassable due to standing water and debris. Rough waves and storm surge will cause extensive beach erosion. Smaller, but no less dangerous, storm surges are possible farther south toward Miami and farther north toward Charleston, South Carolina.

Most areas along the path of Hurricane Matthew will see 4 to 8 inches of rain over the next couple of days, with more possible in the strongest bands. This heavy rain will soften the soil and make it easier for wind to blow down trees and power lines. The sudden onslaught of water will overwhelm manmade and natural drainage systems, likely causing major flooding in low-lying areas.

If current forecasts hold true, Hurricane Matthew will loop back to the south this weekend and early next week. The ridge of high pressure that’s forcing Matthew into the southeastern U.S. will once again weaken as we head toward the weekend, allowing the hurricane to begin recurving toward the east. The storm will get “stuck” between the ridge over the Atlantic and a ridge building over the eastern half of the United States, leaving Matthew with nowhere to go but south. Models currently show the storm weakening as it turns south and then southwest next week. There is a possibility that it could hit southern Florida again late next week as a tropical storm or tropical depression, but that’s a long way off, and lots can change between now and then.

The National Hurricane Center will issue updates on Hurricane Matthew every three hours as long as it’s close to land, and they will issue hourly position updates while the eye is near shore.