Hurricane Matthew leaves 300,000+ Florida residents without power

(CNN) — Hurricane Matthew stalked Florida’s east coast early Friday, teetering parallel to the peninsula.

Matthew’s eyewall was brushing Cape Canaveral packing 120 mph winds, according to the National Hurricane Center at 7 a.m. ET.

The biggest questions remained: Will the storm make landfall? If so, where?

Weather experts were watching for the slightest change in Matthew’s unpredictable path, which they say could make an enormous difference to the hurricane’s impact on land.

“The exact path is so critical,” said CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam. “Miles and kilometers really count, because if it wobbles westward by say 30 miles, it brings those strong winds onshore.”

Overnight, Matthew weakened from a Category 4 to a Category 3, but the hurricane still was dumping heavy rains and battering beachfront communities with powerful, howling winds. It took out power for more than 300,000 customers in Florida.

The downpour, storm surge and extreme winds are expected to hit central and northern sections of the Florida coast throughout Friday, according to the hurricane center.

Here’s what you need to know:

• Matthew is a Category 3 storm with winds of 120 mph, according to the latest National Hurricane Center advisory. As of 7 a.m. ET, Matthew was about 35 miles east-northeast of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

• Based on the latest projections, Matthew could make landfall in Florida as a Category 3 storm, or it could skirt the coast and head north before possibly heading back toward land.

• Forecasters predict a storm surge in parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina that could be as high as 11 feet, and as many as 15 inches of rain could fall from central Florida to North Carolina.

• The National Weather Service warned that some places hit by Matthew could be uninhabitable for “weeks or months.”

• The storm has killed at least 269 people in three Caribbean countries. The majority, 264 people, died in Haiti, said Civil Protection Service spokesman Joseph Edgard Celestin.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who spent the better part of the past three days warning residents to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, described the storm as a “monster.”

Many people left coastal areas, but others stayed, anxious to see how their area would stand up to the storm.

Florida braces for direct hit

Scott told those on the state’s Atlantic coast that the question is not whether they will lose power, but for how long.

A direct hit by Matthew, he said, could lead to “massive destruction” on a level unseen since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations in the state stretch from Miami to the Florida-Georgia border.

At least two counties were under curfew until 7 a.m. Saturday, officials announced. Orange and Volusia Counties on Thursday night instituted mandatory curfews. The curfews include Orlando and Daytona Beach.

Airline passengers were urged to call before leaving for the airport. Florida airports had canceled hundreds of flights, most of them in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. Fort Lauderdale closed its airport, airlines suspended operations in Miami, and Orlando’s airport closed Thursday evening.

Palm Beach residents cleared grocery store shelves ahead of the storm. Despite all the warnings, West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said not everyone is listening, even with mandatory evacuation orders in place.

Mandatory evacuations in South Carolina

Cars packed highways as South Carolina residents fled coastal areas after officials gave mandatory evacuation orders for several counties.

Close to half a million people were expected to have evacuated by Thursday, said Kim Stenson, director of South Carolina Emergency Management.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation changed the directions of eastbound traffic lanes on highways to accommodate the exodus of people leaving coastal cities like Charleston.

As thousands fled inland, some people said they were staying put.

North Carolina playing it by ear

Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for the entire state. So far, though, there’s been no official call to evacuate.

“We’re just going to have to play it by ear and have our resources ready,” the governor has said.

Officials are concerned that eastern North Carolina areas that were recently flooded will see more rain from Matthew.

Georgia governor: ‘Remain calm, be prepared’

Gov. Nathan Deal has declared a state of emergency in 30 counties near the coast and ordered evacuations for all counties east of Interstate 95.

Of special concern is Tybee Island, a low-lying island east of Savannah, which is also under mandatory evacuation orders.

“Remain calm, be prepared and make informed, responsible decisions,” Deal said.

In Savannah, Mayor Eddie DeLoach warned those who stay that they’d be on their own.