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Hurricane Matthew is walloping Florida — but it could have been much, much worse

Florida Prepares As Hurricane Matthew Barrels Towards Atlantic Coast Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Right now, Hurricane Matthew is traveling parallel to the coast of Florida, lashing the edge of the state with 100 mph winds and dangerous storm surges that are flooding land that’s usually dry.

The damage has been considerable already: 600,000 residents in Florida have been left without power, and one woman died of a heart attack after emergency officials couldn’t get to her through the storm.

There’s more to come: “Life-threatening” storm surges are expected in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, with waters rising between 3 and 10 feet in some areas at high tide. South Carolina could face more than a foot of rainfall and deadly floods when Matthew reaches the state this weekend.

These videos offer a glimpse of the havoc so far in Daytona Beach:

What’s notable, however, is that this hurricane could have been much, much worse.

As Matthew traveled up from the Bahamas to Florida on Thursday, the storm wobbled ever so slightly eastward, away from the state.

That meant the difference between a Category 4 hurricane slamming directly into Florida and a slightly weaker Category 3 hurricane remaining just off the coast. Those little stutter steps may have spared Florida billions of dollars in damages:

This doesn’t mean Florida’s in the clear, however. Even though the storm remains offshore, hurricane-force winds can extend as far as 60 miles out from the center. Anyone on the coast or even slightly inland is very much at risk, and officials were correct to order evacuations from barrier islands and beaches.

And there are still major threats ahead. Here’s the National Hurricane Center: “There is a danger of life-threatening inundation during the next 36 hours along the Florida northeast coast, the Georgia coast, the South Carolina coast, and the North Carolina coast from Sebastian Inlet, Florida, to Cape Fear, North Carolina.” Cities like Jacksonville will face serious flooding in areas that normally stay dry.

Here’s the latest forecast for Matthew’s expected path:

(National Hurricane Center)

Note that after sliding up past Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, the storm is expected to loop back around next week. By that point, however, it’s expected to have weakened into a tropical depression, with much weaker winds. Still, check the National Hurricane Center for constant updates.

The one interesting footnote here is that if Matthew doesn’t make landfall, that will mean the United States will maintain its 11-year streak without a major Atlantic hurricane (Category 3 or higher) making landfall. (Hurricane Hermine hit Florida last month, but that was only a Category 1; the last major hurricane to hit was Wilma in 2005.)

Further reading: