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Hurricane Matthew thrashed the coast of Florida Friday with ferocious winds and rain, kicking off what was expected to be a devastating march up the Southeast after a deadly spree across the Caribbean.
The storm weakened to a Category 3 hurricane overnight after decimating Haiti, where the death toll rose Friday to more than 800, according to Reuters. NBC News could not immediately confirm that number.
Despite weakening, Matthew still packed dangerous wind gusts of up to 120 mph Friday morning, hammering the Florida shoreline and cutting off power to more than 800,000 residents.
Instead of following the worst-case-scenario path that meteorologists had feared, Matthew stayed some 100 miles away from South Florida, sparing the 4.4 million people in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas from its havoc.
It was not clear when and where Matthew would make landfall, but Florida Gov. Rick Scott has warned a direct hit would be "catastrophic."
"But just remember: It could be the worst part of this is still to come," he said Friday. "We still have potential for a direct hit and we're seeing 100-mile-per-hour winds."
While Matthew's path shifted slightly, its storm surge still looked set to be historic, according to NBC News meteorologist Bill Karins.
Storm surges of 7 to 11 feet were forecast near Daytona Beach, and were expected to move up into Georgia and South Carolina on Saturday morning. There were concerns about flash flooding and river flooding in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, Karins said.
In Daytona Beach, forecasters were keeping an eye on the waves.
"We are at low tide right now. We are going to be at high tide just after lunchtime and it's going to cause problems," The Weather Channel's Jen Carfagno said from Daytona Beach, where 8 to 12 inches of rain are forecast.
The storm was about 35 miles east-northeast of Daytona Beach and about 95 miles southeast of Jacksonville of Daytona Beach as of 11 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said.
Hurricane warnings were issued from Sebastian Inlet, Florida, and were extended up to Surf City, North Carolina, late Friday morning.
That swath of land includes Jacksonville, which hasn't had a hurricane warning for 17 years, according to The Weather Channel.
A woman in her 50s died in St. Lucie County, Florida, after suffering a cardiac arrest overnight after emergency personnel stopped operations due to wind gusts, the St. Lucie County Fire District told NBC News. There were no other reports of casualties as of Friday morning.
"This is still a major hurricane and it's a very large one," said The Weather Channel's Bonnie Schneider. "Please don't let your guard down just because it's not a Category 4."
Heavy rain fell relentlessly overnight. In Palm Beach, live power lines were knocked to the ground, sending sparks flying. Elsewhere, transformers exploded, illuminating the dark sky.
"This storm's a monster," Scott warned as the hurricane began pummeling his state. "I'm going to pray for everybody's safety."
Two million people up and down Florida had been ordered to evacuate, and some 3,500 members of the National Guard — half of the state's contingent — had been activated.
"This is the most I've ever had to activate," Scott said.
Evacuations were also under way in Georgia and South Carolina.
"There is nothing safe about what's getting ready to happen," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said of the storm surges, which could top 8 feet in her state.
Obama on Friday warned those in the storm's path to listen to local authorities.
"Do what they say. Do not be a holdout, because we can always replace property, but we can't replace lives," he said.