Matthew batters Florida, Haiti toll rises

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.

About 300,000 Florida households were without power, local media reported. 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.

The U.S. National Weather Service said the storm could be the most powerful to strike northeast Florida in 118 years.

Hurricane Matthew was carrying extremely dangerous winds of 120 mph (195 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Matthew’s winds had dropped on Thursday night and into Friday morning, downgrading it to a Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, 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.”

Hurricane Matthew was packing gusts of 115 kph per hour and heavy downpours across coastal communities in Florida as it moved parrallel to and just offshore of the east coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.

“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.”

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.

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