The most ferocious Caribbean storm in nearly a decade crept its way along Florida's Atlantic seaboard after plowing through Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, with at least 877 people killed in Haiti alone, according to Reuters.
The poorest nation in the continent has, on top of the disaster that has also left tens of thousands homeless, reported a cholera outbreak that already killed 17 people, as flood water mixes with sewage. Unconfirmed reports from remote areas say at least 175 more have died in areas that were cut off by the storm.
Four people have also lost their lives in the Dominican Republic and two in Florida, where over a million people have been left without power.
Matthew's winds had dropped on Thursday night and into Friday morning. It is now a Category Two hurricane 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.
Many victims in Haiti were killed by falling trees, flying debris and swollen rivers when Matthew hit with 145-mph winds Tuesday.
Most of the fatalities were in towns and fishing villages around the western end of Tiburon peninsula in the country's southwest, one of Haiti's most picturesque regions. The storm passed directly through the peninsula, driving the sea inland and flattening homes on Monday and Tuesday.
"Several dozen" died in the coastal town of Les Anglais in Sud Department, said Louis Paul Raphael, the central government's representative in the region. "I've never seen anything like this," said Raphael.
As the storm passed near the Bahamas capital of Nassau, howling gusts of wind brought down palms and other trees and ripped shingles off the rooftops of many houses. Bahamas Power and Light disconnected much of Nassau as Matthew bore down on the town.
U.S. President Barack Obama has declared a state of emergency for Florida and South Carolina, allowing federal emergency teams to be deployed. Meanwhile, Georgia and South Carolina declared their own states of emergency, closing schools, opening shelters, deploying nearly 7,800 National Guardsmen and beginning the arduous process of evacuation.
If Matthew skirts the coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina as experts expect, rather than slamming directly into land as most hurricanes do, the storm would keep drawing energy from the warm ocean waters, fuelling its destructive force.
"Once they make landfall, they will dissipate, but in the case of Matthew, it is going to be half over the ocean and continue to gain energy and hold together for much longer," said Isaac Hankes, a weather research analyst at Lanworth Inc, a company owned by Thomson Reuters Corp.
More than 12 million people in the United States were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
“Time is running out," Florida Governor Rick Scott said at a news conference Thursday. "This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast and we're going to have hurricane-force winds."
Scott said that forecasters predicted a storm surge of up to nine feet. "Do not surf," Scott said. "Do not go on the beach. This will kill you."
According to experts, this is the region's strongest storm in nearly a decade and the worst hurricane to hit that side of the Caribbean since Inez in 1966. The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 110 mph, to make landfall on U.S. shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Florida, Georgia and South Carolina opened shelters for evacuees Thursday while federal emergency response teams coordinated with state officials to stockpile supplies, U.S. President Barack Obama said.
Schools and airports across the region were closed Thursday and some hospitals were evacuated, according to local media. Hundreds of flights were canceled in and out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Florida, the industry website Flightaware.com said early on Thursday.
Matthew was heading northwest at about 12 mph as of Thursday morning and expected to make landfall in South Florida Thursday evening, the National Hurricane Center said. The eye of the storm was projected to pass near Andros Island and New Providence in the northwestern Bahamas shortly before noon Eastern time.
With wind gusts of up to 140 mph, Matthew lashed Cuba and especially Haiti beginning late Tuesday. The devastation in Haiti left at least 35 people dead and prompted authorities to postpone a presidential election scheduled for this weekend. In Florida, fuel stations posted "out of gas" signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up.
Some residents prepared to wait out the storm and stocked up on water, milk and canned goods, emptying grocery store shelves, local media said.
Residents and business owners boarded up windows with plywood and hurricane shutters and placed sandbags to protect property against flooding.
"All boarded up and ready to bunker down. God be with us," West Palm Beach resident Brad Gray said in a Tweet.
Jamaica's capital, Kingston, saw light showers with gray and overcast skies. At a nearby beach, there were huge waves and crowds were gathering to film them from drones and cellphone cameras.
In both Jamaica and Haiti, authorities shut the main airports to wait for the storm to pass.
In Cuba evacuation operations were well underway, with most tourists in the eastern town of Santiago de Cuba moved inland and given instructions on where to shelter in hotels during the hurricane.