East Coast braces for Hurricane Matthew, local crews head south

Jared Felkins • Oct 7, 2016 at 12:41 PM

Hurricane Matthew could be the most costly hurricane in U.S. history, causing as much as $269 billion in damage and that is just for Florida, according to a new report from Ball State University.

Property damage to Florida’s coast could exceed 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, estimated around $156 billion then, or roughly $190 billion today, according Michael Hicks, director of Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research. He conducted the study with Mark Burton, an economics professor at the University of Tennessee.

“Without a doubt, Hurricane Matthew will be a historically catastrophic storm that will be talked about for decades to come,” Hicks said. “Our study focused on Florida, which could bear the brunt of the hurricane. I am afraid the costs of the storm could jump if there is significant damage to inland part of the state as well as long-term impact on Florida’s tourism industry.

“We also believe the costs could skyrocket if the hurricane hits other Southern states in the next day or so,” he said, specifying Georgia and South Carolina. “In the end, this storm will have a major impact on the southeast.”

As it plowed up the coast, Hurricane Matthew largely spared South Florida on Thursday and into Friday morning but cut a razor-thin path that threatened to make history: the first major hurricane on record to strike Central Florida's east coast.

A small jog north largely kept Miami-Dade and Broward counties just outside Matthew's worst winds. But just to the north, the rest of the state's Atlantic coast faced much worse – anything from a damaging sideswipe to a potentially catastrophic direct hit.

On its projected path, the lethal Category 4 storm – already blamed for killing more than 100 people in Haiti, a toll that is almost certain to rise – could rake hundreds of miles of the coast from Port St. Lucie to Jacksonville. The large and powerful storm could drive flooding ocean waters into coastal communities and cause billions in damage – even if its central core never pushes ashore.

Matthew is the first major Category 3 or higher hurricane to strike the U.S. mainland since Wilma in 2005.

To estimate the potential economic consequences associated with Hurricane Matthew, Hicks and Burton used their analysis of Hurricane Katrina. It employed a flood damage assessment model to estimate the storm surge damage in Katrina’s wake.

Later analysis concluded these estimates were very close to the final cost of the hurricane, Hicks said.

The National Weather Service in Melbourne warned Thursday that the approaching storm is the "strongest hurricane to affect this area in decades," and that wind damage could leave some areas uninhabitable for weeks. Bryan Norcross, a meteorologist with The Weather Channel who grew up in Melbourne, said on Facebook that "there is nothing in the record book even close."

Although the Space Coast has dealt with tropical storms over the past decade, Klotzbach said no major storm has ever been recorded making a hit going back to 1851. In 2004, Frances and Jeanne sent damaging winds north, but both made landfall in Martin County. In 1995, Hurricane Erin hit Vero Beach, but it crossed Brevard County with peak winds of about 100 mph, making it a Category 1 storm.

Local power crews head south to offer help

Locally, three, four-man crews from Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. are on their way to Florida to join efforts to restore power in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.

The workers and nine trucks left from the electric cooperative’s Murfreesboro office Friday at 6 a.m.; their destination is Keystone Heights, Fla., where they’ll assist Clay Electric Cooperative in restoration efforts.

"We got the call [Wednesday] asking if we could send crews to assist as Hurricane Matthew headed toward the U.S.,” said Chris Jones, MTEMC president and CEO. “MTEMC and a number of other electric cooperatives in Tennessee are responding to that call.”

Jones said MTEMC’s line crews are often eager to help when situations are at their worst.

"It is amazing to watch these guys when they know people are in need," he said. "That's when they're at their best. We're very proud of them."

About 80 volunteers from electric cooperatives from across the state will join the Middle Tennessee Electric crews. Some of the cooperative volunteers are dispatched to Charleston, S.C., while the majority will continue on to Florida.

"As cooperatives," Jones said, "one of our core values is assisting other cooperatives in need. If we had a bad ice storm, you can bet these cooperatives would be there to help us if we needed them."

The last time MTEMC was asked to assist in the wake of a hurricane was in 2011 after Hurricane Irene tore through Fredericksburg, Va. Prior to 2011, crews were sent to assist in the restoration efforts after Hurricane Gustav ravaged Louisiana in 2008. 

Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. is a member-owned, not-for-profit cooperative that provides electricity to more than 214,000 residential and business members in Williamson, Wilson, Rutherford, Cannon and surrounding counties.

Publix Super Markets established a program Thursday to offer its customers and associates a way to directly assist those areas affected by Hurricane Matthew.

Customers may donate any amount by adding it to their grocery totals when checking out at Publix registers. Collected money will be channeled through the American Red Cross and designated specifically for disaster relief in support of their effort to help people affected by Hurricane Matthew. The program will continue for a few weeks, based on customer response.

David Ovalle, Jenny Staletovich and Nicholas Nehamas with The Miami Herald contributed to this report. 

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