CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As Hurricane Matthew made its way over The Bahamas Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center upgraded the storm to a category 4 hurricane as it moved within 200 miles of the Florida coast.
“This storm is getting stronger,” chief meteorologist Brad Panovich said. “Hurricane hunters were out there, the pressure was falling. As the pressure falls, the winds start to catch up, so it is getting stronger, and is likely to be a category 4 soon.”
Matthew, with sustained winds of over 140 mph, is expected to be the first major hurricane to strike the United States since Wilma in October of 2005.
“In Florida, this is the real deal,” Panovich said. “And if it makes a little nudge to the west, which there is potential, these winds, which are over 100 mph, could cause some massive damage along the coast.”
The good news for Florida residents is that the strongest winds remain near the storm's eye, which is still hundreds of miles away.
“The one little piece of good news for Florida is I’ve been looking at the wind field and the strongest winds, the 100-plus mph winds, are really confined to within just 20-30 miles of that eye wall. The winds farther away are strong, but they’re more in the tropical storm force variety.”
Over the last 12 hours, Matthew gained significant strength and the eye has become easily defined. As it moves over the warm waters southeast of Florida, there's the potential for even more strengthening.
“It’s a very well-defined eye and has actually been getting stronger over the last 12 hours. I wouldn’t call it rapid intensification, but it’s right on the borderline,” said Panovich. “It’s still going to be moving into the area of very favorable conditions for potentially more strengthening in the next 12 hours.”
The storm is going to continue to approach the eastern coast of Florida, with landfall expected to happen around 2 a.m. Friday. By Friday afternoon, Matthew is expected to be northeast of Orlando in the Daytona Beach area before beginning to turn offshore Saturday afternoon.
As for Matthew's landfall, the National Hurricane Center's track gives the storm several opportunities to strike. Panovich has the area from West Palm Beach north to Cape Canaveral as a likely landfall location.
"There's still a possibility at West Palm Beach, maybe Port St. Lucie, because it juts out a little there, but I think further north is probably the area we're going to need to watch," Panovich said.
The biggest concern for the coastal areas of South Carolina will likely be flooding as a result of high storm surge. In Florida, devastating winds and storm surge will wreak havoc along the Atlantic coast.
"The storm surge on the Florida coast is expected to peak around nine feet. As you get closer to the Charleston area, the storm surge is a little less, but it takes less flooding," Panovich said. "If you look directly at Charleston Harbor, we have a max of about three feet just after midnight. By the afternoon, storm surge is showing over five feet above sea level, so the potential for flooding is still there.
Once the storm makes landfall, Panovich expects it to weaken as quickly as it strengthened Wednesday into Thursday.
“If it makes landfall or touches the coast, it would likely weaken pretty dramatically,” Panovich said. “The farther north you get, the winds in the atmosphere are really blowing strong from the southwest, which is called wind shear, and that would really weaken the storm, as well as interaction with the coast, and cooler water in the Atlantic Ocean.”
South Carolinians began evacuations earlier this week after Governor Haley told residents to begin storm preparation and evacuation Tuesday.
Fortner says there's a lack of confidence as to what the storm will do four or five days out but the possibility of it making a sharp right turn is still strong.
The low pressure of nearby tropical storm Nicole may change Hurricane Matthew's route. Panovich says the low pressures of nearby tropical storm Nicole may attract the hurricane, creating the possibility of a sharp right turn before hitting North Carolina's coast.
"Still have your precautions and plans in place, but don't act on them yet," Panovich warned North Carolinians.
In a press conference Wednesday, North Carolina Governor McCrory urged North Carolinians and visitors to closely follow the storm and listen to any evacuation orders.
"The storm is still working in North Carolina's advantage as it hopefully continues to move east," the governor said. "It's basically working against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina's advantage and we're going to do everything we can to help those states."
Earlier this week Hurricane Matthew battered Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic with at least eight people reported dead.
“Many of our central and eastern counties are already saturated from storms during the past few weeks,” said state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry. “With additional rain and heavy winds in the forecast, we are preparing for additional flooding, downed trees and widespread power outages in the coming days.”
On Monday, Governor Pat McCrory declared a State of Emergency in 66 of North Carolina's 100 counties. The declaration will expedite the movement and activation of resources, such as the National Guard. McCrory also waived restrictions for truckers on hours of service and weight limits in an effort help farmers harvest their crops, quickly restore power and expedite debris removal.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation is prepositioning equipment and personnel along the coastline, and ferry operations are working to expedite the transportation of residents and visitors off Ocracoke Island and the Outer Banks.
The National Hurricane Center has issued hurricane warnings along the coast of Florida. Hurricane watch is in effect from Deerfield Beach, Florida, to the Volusia/Brevard County line.
As of now, rain and wind is expected in the Charlotte area this weekend.