By David Smiley, Amy Sherman and David J. Neal
Powerful Hurricane Matthew slowed its deadly northwest trek out of the Caribbean and across the Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday, giving South Florida a few extra frenzied hours to prepare for the Category 3 storm.
Grocery stores were slammed all day. Gas stations ran out of fuel. And businesses were urged to let employees out early to put up storm shutters and brace for a storm expected to inundate the area with high winds and heavy rain.
Now, with conditions expected to deteriorate Thursday morning and worsen into the night, South Florida waits and hopes for the best.
"We need to prepare for the possibility of hurricane-force winds," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Wednesday evening. "We expect the worst of the weather will begin in the morning."
In anticipation of dangerous winds, public schools in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties will be closed Thursday and Friday, as will many of the state's universities. Public transportation is also shutting down. Residents in coastal and low-lying areas were encouraged to evacuate in Broward and Palm Beach, as were all mobile home residents across South Florida.
Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport will cease operations after 10:30 a.m., and most flights by AmericanAirlines, South Florida's largest carrier, have been canceled, although Miami International Airport was expected to remain open. Access to South Florida's ports was restricted, cruise liners were rerouted and marinas across the coast hunkered down in anticipation of storm surge. Bridges around South Florida were to be lowered and locked into position Wednesday evening, and tolls were suspended on all Miami-Dade Expressway highways.
Local governments sent home any non-essential personnel.
"It's incredibly important that residents continue to take this very seriously for you and family," said Broward County Mayor Martin David Kiar. "We haven't had one of these storms in 11 years and this storm is going to go right up the east coast of Florida."
In all likelihood, South Florida will be a ghost town Thursday. Malls, museums and many private businesses will be closed. Depending on your neighborhood, South Beach, for instance, you might not even be able to grab a cup of Starbucks.
According to the 8 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center, the storm packed 115-mile-per-hour winds, with hurricane-force winds extending 45 miles out from the center and tropical storm-force winds 175 miles from the eye. Tropical storm conditions were expected to hit Florida early Thursday. Coastal areas could be hit with up to 7 inches of rain, and 10 inches in isolated areas.
All of Palm Beach and Broward counties are under a hurricane warning that extends as far south as Golden Beach. The rest of Miami-Dade is under a tropical storm warning. Matthew remained on course to most likely pass alongside South Florida, but the possibility remained that the region could suffer a direct hit should the hurricane veer even slightly off its anticipated course.
Though some scoffed Wednesday at the danger posed by Matthew, the evidence across South Florida suggested most the region took the hurricane seriously, continuing on a hectic gas station and grocery store-run that began Tuesday afternoon. At a Publix in Oakland Park, the store was jammed at 8:30 a.m. as shoppers stocked up on water, ice, toilet paper, pet food and batteries. Gail Thornton, who takes care of her 23-year-old disabled son, was worried about her son's health since he relies on a ventilator to breathe at night.
"I get a little nervous --it's just my son and myself," she said. "The roof is not real good and we have no insurance."
Power outages are also expected to be widespread. The hurricane could affect as many as 1.2 million of Florida Power & Light's customers, predicted company president and chief executive officer Eric Silagy.
"We're going to ask you to be prepared," Silagy conceded during a Wednesday-afternoon in Riviera Beach. "There's no such thing as a storm-proof electric system."
But FPL will be quicker than ever getting blacked-out neighborhood back on the grid, Silagy said. The company has asked for extra crews and equipment from power companies as far away as Texas and Massachusetts, and many of them are already in place.
The state, meanwhile, was working with the American Red Cross to rush in to any area devastated by the storm. Gov. Rick Scott's office also said Florida has 8 days worth of fuel, even if all ports close.
Still, some weren't sweating Wednesday.
In Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour, 24-hour gas station owner Joe Suarez said he expected to stay open. With a line of cars around the four pumps at his Texaco on Alton Road, he said he'd make money as long as circumstances allowed.
"I might not have any gas," he said. "But we'll be open unless something gets crazy."
Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Glenn Garvin, Kristen Clark, Carli Teproff and Alex Harris contributed to this report.
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