As millions of people from Florida to South Carolina evacuated coastal regions, a downgrade to hurricane Matthew overnight has some forecasters saying it looks like US states will be spared the brunt of the storm as it rages off the coast.
As of 7 a.m. Eastern time, Matthew, now a category 3 storm, hovered around 20-30 miles off the coast, with wind gusts of up to 107 miles per hour brushing the tip of Cape Canaveral, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was moving north-northwest at 14 mph.
More than 300,000 people from coastal to central Florida were without power by Friday morning.
Still, the storm that smashed the Caribbean and killed more than 280 people in Haiti is the worst to threaten the US Atlantic coast in a decade, and authorities weren’t taking it lightly. President Obama and governors in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina all declared states of emergency as thousands of flights were canceled, and some interstate highways were turned into one-way routes to speed up the flow of traffic.
In Florida, which is expected to see the worst of the storm, 1.5 million fled their homes, but as of Thursday evening, 4.4 million in Miami and Fort Lauderdale appeared to have been spared serious threat.
"It could have been a lot worse," Matt Volkmer of the National Hurricane Center told the Orlando Sentinel. "The issue right now is the outer wall diameter is just wide enough that we’re going to see it move up Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and the barrier islands of Volusia county."
In Georgia, where the storm is expected to strengthen throughout the day, Gov. Nathan Deal has evacuated the entire coastline – more than half a million people.
"We have a house that sits right here on the water and we kind of said goodbye to it thinking that, you know, the house ... might not be here when we get back," Jennifer Banker, a resident of Georgia's dangerously exposed St. Simons Island, told the Associated Press. "You know, we pray a lot and trust God to provide."
More than 3,000 flights were canceled after Fort Lauderdale airport shut down, and Orlando airport planned to do the same. Florida’s Palm Beach International Airport experienced a wind gust of 50 mph.
Delta, American, United, and JetBlue airlines have offered travelers change fee waivers in areas affected by the hurricane, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
As the storm moves away from Florida, some forecasts suggest there is a 50-50 chance Matthew will move out to the Atlantic Ocean before looping back to South Florida.
However, if that were to happen, it would likely be a weak tropical storm, Fox 35 meteorologist Jayme King told the Orlando Sentinel.
"It's really a different ball game now," he said. "This storm was going to be unlike anything these communities had ever seen. It's still a dangerous and powerful storm, but the outlook has improved significantly."
This report contains material from the Associated Press.