ORLANDO/MIAMI • Hurricane Matthew, carrying winds of 195kmh, lashed central Florida yesterday, hugging the Atlantic coast as it moved north and threatening more destruction after killing more than 570 people in Haiti.
One woman in her 50s was reportedly the first known fatality in the United States from the storm. She suffered a medical emergency in her home in central Florida's St Lucie County, but high winds prevented fire officials from responding and she died of cardiac arrest, a fire spokesman told the Agence France-Presse.
Matthew, the first major hurricane to threaten a direct hit on the US in more than a decade, triggered mass evacuations along the coast from Florida to Georgia and into South Carolina and North Carolina.
Southern parts of Florida escaped the brunt of the storm overnight, but the authorities yesterday urged people further north not to get complacent. The Florida coastal city of Jacksonville could face significant flooding, Florida governor Rick Scott warned. The storm had cut power to some 600,000 households, he told a news conference.
In Haiti, where poor rural communities were ravaged by Matthew earlier this week, the death toll surged to at least 572 people yesterday, as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the storm.
"The winds are ferocious right now," said Mr Jeff Piotrowski, a 40-year-old storm chaser from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was near Cape Canaveral early yesterday. The storm downed power lines and trees and destroyed billboards in Cape Canaveral, he said.
No significant damage or injuries were reported in West Palm Beach and other communities in south Florida where the storm had brought down trees and power lines earlier in the night, CNN and local media reported.
Matthew lessened in intensity on Thursday night, from an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm to a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir- Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, but it was still a major storm.
It could either plough inland or tear along the Atlantic coast through Friday night (today Singapore time), the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said, warning of "potentially disastrous impacts".
The US National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike north-east Florida in 118 years.
NHC director Rick Knabb said that although Matthew was so far raking the coast, with its eye offshore, it still posed great danger to residents along the coast.
"You don't have to be near the centre of the hurricane to be in the centre of action with inland flooding," he said in a webcast.
The NHC's hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from southern Florida to Georgia and into South Carolina.
The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 177kmh, to make landfall on US shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
As of yesterday morning, about 22,000 people were in Florida shelters and more moved inland or to the state's west coast, the Florida governor said.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, a move that authorised federal agencies to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE