Hurricane Matthew may take aim at US East Coast

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By Jordan Root, Accuweather.com

Hurricane Matthew will impact the U.S. East Coast later this week, but how close it tracks to the coast and its strength will determine the severity of the impacts.

Matthew, currently a powerful Category 4 hurricane in the Caribbean, will bring devastating wind, storm surge, rain and mudslides to Haiti, eastern Cuba and Jamaica through Tuesday. The storm will then take aim at the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Tuesday night into Thursday.

Beyond that, uncertainty greatly increases in the track, timing and intensity of Matthew. There are several scenarios that could play out which would result in different threats for the U.S. East Coast.

Matthew to bring dangerous rough surf and rip currents to East Coast

As Matthew emerges from the Bahamas after midweek, the U.S. East Coast will need to be on alert.

While the exact track is not set in stone at this time, Matthew could take a track close to the coast or could pass several hundred miles offshore. Regardless, the U.S. East Coast will still face impacts.

AccuWeather Meteorologists expect Matthew to still be a powerful hurricane at midweek as it churns over warm water near the Bahamas.

"At the very least, rough surf and rip currents should impact the East Coast," AccuWeather Meteorologist Evan Duffey said.

See photos of Hurricane Matthew:

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Hurricane Matthew
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Hurricane Matthew
CARIBBEAN SEA - OCTOBER 1: In this NOAA handout image, taken by the GOES satellite at UTC: 1447Z shows Hurricane Matthew in the Caribbean Sea just south of Cuba and Jamacia on October 1, 2016. Matthew is now a strong Category 4 hurricane, in the central Caribbean Sea after weakening from a Category 5 overnight. (Photo by NOAA via Getty Images)
A man collects plastic and glass bottles in the canal of Portail Leogane, in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on October 1, 2016. As Hurricane Matthew threatens the Caribbean on Sunday, Haitians worry about flooding of the canal due to the accumulation of garbages. / AFP / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Part of a street is reflected in a puddle near the canal of Portail Leogane, in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, on October 1, 2016. As Hurricane Matthew threatens the Caribbean on Sunday, Haitians worry about flooding of the canal due to the accumulation of garbages. / AFP / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
A small market is reflected in a puddle near the canal of Portail Leogane, in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, on October 1, 2016. As Hurricane Matthew threatens the Caribbean on Sunday, Haitians worry about flooding of the canal due to the accumulation of garbages. / AFP / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman sells sandals in a street near the canal of Portail Leogane in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince on October 1, 2016. As Hurricane Matthew threatens the Caribbean on Sunday, Haitians worry about flooding of the canal due to the accumulation of garbages. / AFP / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
A man repairs a bicycle in the Champ de Mars Square in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, on October 1, 2016. Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Caribbean storm in a decade, churned towards Jamaica and Haiti Saturday on a path that forecasters said could eventually take it to the eastern United States. / AFP / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Jamaicans stand next to shopping carts filled with bottled water and other items outside a supermarket, pending the arrival of Hurricane Matthew in Kingston, Jamaica, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy
Jamaicans check flashlights at a supermarket pending the arrival of Hurricane Matthew in Kingston, Jamaica, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy
Jamaicans flock to the supermarkets to take care of last minute shopping pending the arrival of Hurricane Matthew in Kingston, Jamaica, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy
Jamaicans flock to the supermarkets to take care of last minute shopping pending the arrival of Hurricane Matthew in Kingston, Jamaica, September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy
Tropical Storm Matthew, which has since gained hurricane strength, is seen in an image captured by NASA-NOAA's Suomi NPP satellite at 1pm ET (17:00 GMT) September 29, 2016. NOAA/NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
SALINA, CURACAO -  SEPTEMBER 29: Flooded area is seen after the Matthew hurricane in Salina, Curacao on September 29, 2016. In Salina, which is one of the wellknown centre in Curacao, hurricane Matthew caused flood. The storm, which became hurricane category one, will past 230 km away from Curacao.  (Photo by Paco Nunez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SALINA, CURACAO -  SEPTEMBER 29: Flooded area is seen after the Matthew hurricane in Salina, Curacao on September 29, 2016. In Salina, which is one of the wellknown centre in Curacao, hurricane Matthew caused flood. The storm, which became hurricane category one, will past 230 km away from Curacao.  (Photo by Paco Nunez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Waves are seen as Hurricane Matthew approaches, in Kingston, Jamaica October 2, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero
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The largest waves will likely batter Florida to North Carolina Wednesday through Friday. Rip currents will develop and can be life-threatening. Vacationers and beachgoers should heed local swimming advisories.

Beaches will likely experience some erosion as the waves repeatedly batter the coast. Some areas could also experience coastal flooding.

How close Matthew tracks to the coast will determine whether more severe rain and wind will impact the Southeast coast.

Depending on where Matthew goes after Friday, rough surf could batter coastal areas farther north from Virginia to southern New England.

Could Matthew make a U.S. landfall?

A scenario in which Matthew brushes the East Coast or makes landfall is still on the table.

There will be several key factors in determining which way Matthew is steered later in the week. Each factor will have large implications on whether or not Matthew strikes the East Coast.

Initially, Matthew will emerge out of the Caribbean as it tracks northward between an area of high pressure over the Atlantic and a dip in the jet stream over the eastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Mike Doll.

Where exactly this atmosphere highway sets up between these two features will determine how close Matthew comes to Florida.

The next key weather system will likely be a storm system set to track into the central U.S. by Tuesday.

"If that system is slower to reach the eastern U.S., the chance that Matthew hits the Carolinas is greater," Doll said.

If the track were to track close to the coast, significant impacts from rain, wind and flooding would be possible.

"If the system is faster, it could then pick up Matthew and kick it out to sea," Doll said.

Even in this scenario, Matthew may still impact a smaller part of the East Coast before getting steered away. It is also possible that Matthew initially gets pushed away from the coast, but then gets drawn back into New England or the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

"The key message is that we cannot rule out a direct impact along the East Coast," Doll said. "However, confidence is high that Matthew will not track into the Gulf of Mexico."

See photos of the cities most vulnerable to hurricanes:

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Top 5 cities vulnerable to hurricanes
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Top 5 cities vulnerable to hurricanes

Miami, Florida

Miami takes the number one spot on this list with a 16 percent chance of experiencing the impacts of a hurricane in any given year. Based on historical data, on average a hurricane will pass within 50 miles of the Miami metropolitan area every six to eight years. With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and a maximum elevation of 42 feet above sea level Miami's geography makes it highly vulnerable to hurricanes.

In addition to this, a majority of the population resides within 20 miles of the coastline increasing the risk of high property damage.

"Miami has a large population density, and as a result, the effects of a major hurricane would be catastrophic to the city," AccuWeather Meteorologist David Samuhel said. "Also, because of its southern location, Miami is probably the largest city on this list to see a Category 4 or 5 hurricane in the future."

Although a major hurricane is long overdue in Miami, the city has dealt with its share of intense hurricanes in the past. The last major hurricane to affect the city was Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which packed winds of 165 mph and currently holds the record as the third strongest U.S. landfalling hurricane. Andrew's total damage cost was $26.5 billion as communities in the surrounding areas were severely affected due to its intense winds and high storm surge.

Key West, Florida

Key West, like Miami, has a 16 percent chance of being impacted by a hurricane during any Atlantic hurricane season. Known as the Southernmost City in the Continental United States, Key West is directly impacted by a hurricane every 5.96 years, according to Hurricane City.

The Florida Keys are an archipelago of about 1,700 islands spanning 113 miles with Key West located at the southern tip. With the Atlantic Ocean to the south and east and the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west, the coastal town is exposed to all sides to passing hurricanes.

Key West with maximum elevation of 18 feet above sea level makes it susceptible to heavy flooding and storm surge during a hurricane event. Hurricane Wilma in 2004, regarded as the worst storm to hit the area, passed just west of Key West and produced a storm surge of 8 feet leaving 60-70 percent of the island under water.

"Key West has faced several situations in the past where it has been brushed or directly affected by some of the strongest hurricanes to hit the United States. This includes the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane which was remembered as one of the most intense U.S. hurricanes based on pressure and maximum wind speeds," Samuhel said. "Because Key West is so far from the mainland, evacuating people can be a difficult challenge during a hurricane event."

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina

Located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Cape Hatteras has a 15 percent chance of feeling the impacts of a hurricane in any given year. Cape Hatteras is positioned 280 miles farther east than Palm Beach, Florida, (easternmost location of the Florida coast). As a result, Cape Hatteras has been exposed in the past to hurricanes that move up the Eastern Seaboard.

"Cape Hatteras is very close to the Gulf Stream, which enables hurricanes to strengthen due to warmer ocean temperatures during the summer," Samuhel explained. "Typically, when tropical systems get caught in the jet stream off the East Coast of the U.S., they tend to curve out to sea, but because of the location of Hatteras, hurricanes tend to clip that region before affecting anywhere else on the East Coast."

When Hurricane Isabel struck the region in 2003, the Army Corp of Engineers was forced to fill up an inlet that was created when the storm split Hatteras Island between Frisco and Hatteras, North Carolina.

Tampa, Florida

The western coast of Florida has endured its share of hurricanes, and the city of Tampa is no exception. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area has an 11 percent chance of feeling the impacts of a hurricane in any given year. Tampa, situated on a peninsula lying along Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, is exposed to hurricanes entering the Gulf and systems forming in the Atlantic. Many of the 347,645 people living in the area have homes along the coast, making residents susceptible to storm surge.

"Like Miami, Tampa is a large metropolitan area and the effects of a hurricane would be widespread throughout the city," Samuhel explained. "Because it is located by the shallow Tampa Bay, water piles up into the city, causing very significant storm surge along the coastline."

The city hasn't suffered a direct hit by a strong hurricane since the 1921 Tampa Bay Hurricane, the first major hurricane to hit the city, but 68 tropical storms and hurricanes have passed within 60 miles of the city according to Hurricane City. Most recently in 2004, Hurricane Charley caused $16 billion in damages when the Category 4 storm made landfall just south of Tampa.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shined the light on how devastating a tropical system can be for the city of New Orleans. Like Tampa, The Big Easy has an 11 percent chance of experiencing the impact of a hurricane in an average year. According to NOAA, a hurricane makes landfall within 50 miles of New Orleans about once every seven to 11 years.

The city has since made drastic improvements to its levee system since Katrina left most of the city under several feet of water. Nevertheless, with more than 50 percent of the city living below sea level and the rapid sinking of marshy coastal land in southeastern Louisiana, New Orleans still remains highly vulnerable to storm surge during a major hurricane.

"The Mississippi River is almost 30 feet above the city level just to put in perspective of how low New Orleans is in terms of elevation," Samuhel said. "The land around New Orleans is sinking, which puts the city in more danger if another major hurricane strike."

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