Hurricane Matthew killed more than 800 people and left tens of thousands homeless in its rampage through Haiti earlier this week before it lashed Florida yesterday with howling winds and rolled northward up the US Atlantic coast.
The number of deaths in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, surged to at least 842 yesterday as information trickled in from remote areas previously cut off by the storm, according to a Reuters tally of death tolls given by officials.
Matthew, potentially the first major hurricane to hit the United States head on in more than a decade, triggered mass evacuations along the coast from Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina and North Carolina.
Southern Florida escaped the brunt of the storm overnight, but US President Barack Obama urged people not to be complacent and to heed local officials' instructions in the face of a storm that could be the most severe to strike northeast Florida in more than 100 years.
"I just want to emphasise to everybody that this is still a really dangerous hurricane, that the potential for storm surge, loss of life and severe property damage exists," Obama told reporters after a briefing with emergency management officials.
Matthew smashed through Haiti's western peninsula on Tuesday with 145 mph winds and torrential rain. Some 61,500 people were in shelters, officials said, after the storm pushed the sea into fragile coastal villages, some of which were only now being contacted.
At least three towns reported dozens of people killed in the hills and coast of Haiti's fertile western tip, including the farming village of Chantal where the mayor said 86 people died, mostly when trees crushed houses. He said 20 others were missing.
"A tree fell on the house and flattened it, the entire house fell on us. I couldn't get out," said driver Jean-Pierre Jean-Donald, 27, who had been married for only a year.
"People came to lift the rubble, and then we saw my wife who had died in the same spot," Jean-Donald said, his young daughter by his side, crying "Mommy."
With cellphone networks down and roads flooded by sea and river water, aid has been slow to reach hard-hit areas in Haiti. Food was scarce, and at least seven people died of cholera, likely because of flood water mixing with sewage.
The USS Mesa Verde, a US Navy amphibious transport dock ship, was heading for Haiti to support relief efforts. A Navy spokesman said the ship would take heavy-lift helicopters, bulldozers and fresh water delivery vehicles. The ship has a surgical team and two operating rooms on board.
Matthew skirted Florida yesterday with winds of up to 120 miles per hour (195 kph), but did not make landfall. The U.S. National Hurricane Center's hurricane warning extended up the Atlantic coast from central Florida through Georgia and South Carolina and into North Carolina.
In Daytona Beach, Florida, the street under the city's famed "World's Most Famous Beach" sign was clogged with debris washed up by the ocean. The waves had receded by early afternoon but damage was evident throughout the city, including a facade ripped off the front of a seaside hotel.
The city of Jacksonville could face significant flooding, Governor Rick Scott said. The storm had cut power to some 827,000 households in Florida, he said.
Matthew passed over the Bahamas on Thursday and yesterday armed guards patrolled the outside of Fox Hill prison in the capital of Nassau, the Bahamas' only prison facility, after the storm knocked down several parts of its external concrete walls.
Matthew also tore off part of the side of the RIU Paradise Island, one of the major hotel resorts in Nassau, exposing several guest rooms to the elements.
No deaths were reported from the Bahamas, but residents of Nassau were still without power on Friday.
At 2:00pm (1800 GMT), Matthew's eye, or center, was brushing the northeast Florida coast, the NHC said. Its winds had weakened slightly to 115 mph (185 kph) and it was moving at around 12 mph (19 kph) on a path that would likely take it near or over the coast of northeast Florida and Georgia through yesterday night and near or over the coast of South Carolina today.
No significant damage or injuries were reported in cities and towns in south Florida where the storm brought down trees and power lines, CNN and local media reported.
In Cape Canaveral, Florida, home to the country's main space launch site, the storm downed power lines and trees and destroyed billboards.
After losing some strength on Thursday night, Matthew was still a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity. Category 5 is the strongest.
The US National Weather Service said it could be the most powerful storm to strike northeast Florida in 118 years. The last major hurricane, classified as a storm bearing sustained winds of more than 110 mph (177 kph), to make landfall on US shores was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
About 22,000 people were in Florida shelters and more had moved inland or to the state's west coast, Scott said. Georgia and South Carolina had also opened dozens of shelters for evacuees.
South Carolina officials warned residents of potentially damaging flooding and storm surge once Matthew arrives there.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and a senior FEMA official called both candidates for the US presidential election on Nov 8, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, to brief them on Friday them about the storm.