An anxious Palm Beach County slid into dusk Thursday with the budding hope that a slight jostle in Hurricane Matthew’s path had spared it from the Category 4 cyclone’s worst.
The menacing storm that put life on hold for many as they boarded up homes and bought up water, had wobbled to the north, significantly reducing the chances that major hurricane-force winds would tear at the fortifications.
By 8 p.m., only Jupiter, and the very northeastern corner of the county, remained under an extreme level of concern for damaging winds, according to the National Weather Service in Miami.
Still, the storm spun just 80 miles off the coast of West Palm Beach and forecasters implored residents not to underestimate Matthew.
“Don’t be fooled by the quiet weather because there will be lulls throughout the evening,” said Larry Kelley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami. “If this wobbles at all to the west, the eyewall gets awfully close to the Palm Beach coast.”
If Matthew makes landfall in Florida, it would be the 13th Category 4 or 5 storm to hit the Sunshine State. The last was Category 4 Hurricane Charley in 2004, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
While Matthew had weakened to a Category 3 Thursday morning, it quickly regained Cat. 4 stature as it roared toward Florida and forced hurricane warnings as far north as Charleston, S.C.
But Matthew’s winds weren’t the only concern. A midnight high tide was expected to coincide with the strongest winds Palm Beach County was forecast to see, raising concerns for a deadly storm surge of up to 5 feet above dry ground in a worse-case scenario.
Based on National Hurricane Center estimates of possible storm surge heights, Palm Beach County emergency managers evacuated barrier islands and mobile homes.
About 6,700 people rode out Hurricane Matthew in county shelters, including 1,000 hunkered down at Palm Beach Central High School.
At Lake Worth Pier, winds were sustained at 44 mph with 60 mph gusts about 8 p.m. Palm Beach International Airport recorded 33 mph winds with a gust of 55 mph. And in Juno Beach, a gust of 67 mph occurred just before 8 p.m.
But the strongest winds weren’t expected until about midnight, with tropical-storm force winds forecast to last through early morning.
“Some places are going to get really devastating winds, other places may not,” said Dan Kottlowski, a hurricane specialist with AccuWeather. “What we know is this is a major hurricane and most deaths happen in major hurricanes.”
Gov. Rick Scott pleaded with residents to run from Matthew, while forecasters used the ominous language not usually seen in staid forecast discussions.
“This storm’s a monster,” Scott said after returning to the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, after spending the day meeting with officials in South Florida preparing for Matthew.
An atmospheric process where the eyewall of a hurricane closes in and is overtaken by an outside eyewall may have been responsible for the minor flux in Matthew’s path, said Bob Henson, a meteorologist and blogger for Weather Underground.
The jostling might have spared Palm Beach County from the worst, but the Treasure Coast might not be able to say the same as day breaks. Matthew’s center was forecast to be very near Port St. Lucie by 2 a.m. with 130 mph winds.
“There is still a chance it could strengthen slightly,” said Dave Samuhel, senior meteorologist with AccuWeather. “There is very little to weaken it and the atmospheric conditions are great.”
Matthew’s track also morphed into an unusual loop by night’s end. The strange path has the storm tracking back toward South Florida by Tuesday as a tropical storm. Matthew was also joined in the Atlantic Thursday by Hurricane Nicole, which isn’t expected to threaten land, but might help steer Matthew away from Florida.
“I don’t think we should draw any attention away from what’s happening tonight,” said Samuhel, when asked about the curlicue path. “It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”