A Kiwi woman caught in a ferocious hurricane now striking the Florida coast has described howling winds and lashing rain, saying "everybody's scared".
The most powerful storm to threaten the US Atlantic coast in more than a decade has steamed toward heavily populated Florida with terrifying winds of 225km/h, as two million people across the southeast were warned to flee inland.
Hurricane Matthew has already battered Haiti and Cuba in the past few days, claiming 283 lives so far. Florida authorities are ordering body bags and preparing for "mass casualties".
Tanvi Kaushal is staying at Walt Disney World in Orlando with 10 students from the New Zealand School of Tourism. She said the weather was racing over them in extreme bursts of wind and rain before ebbing to "eerily calm".
"It's howling... There's rain, water and wind. It's just ridiculous.
"It will come in every 20 minutes, but it's getting more regular now."
Kaushal, 22, is in a room with 16 other people from all over the world including the 10 Kiwi students. They've hunkered into sleeping bags and are staying up all night to keep an eye on the storm.
"A lot of people are scared, everybody's scared.
"But we're all sticking together
"We've all got family back home and we want them to know we're safe and in one piece."
It wasn't until she got 15 emails from her Disney housing complex saying the accommodation was going into lockdown that Kaushal started to take the hurricane seriously.
"We weren't worried until we found out Disney were closing. If Disney think it's going to be bad, it's going to be bad.
"A lot of the Florida people weren't worried until they were told it was a category 4. They're worried now."
Kiwi Melanie Peapell, in Aventura, in the northeast of Miami Dade County said conditions were dark and the worst of the hurricane bands were now descending.
"When a band passes it gets very dark and the rain and wind pick up," she told the Herald today.
"The rain is horizontal.
"My apartment's windows and glass doors are made of hurricane-proof glass so I was comforted a bit by that."
Peapell, who has lived in the area for 10 years, said schools had shut early on Wednesday and she was off work.
"I have friends in Miami Shores without power and power lines are down a little south of me. The beaches are very rough. South Beach is empty."
Twenty-four kilometres away, in Fort Lauderdale, Aucklander Jackie Lockhart was taking shelter with her daughter Tasha and other relatives.
She said food shelves were "empty everywhere" and queues to gas stations stretched around the block.
But North Shore-born Caryn Haynes, also in Fort Lauderdale, said the eye of the storm had passed the city slightly and had moved to the northeast.
"We currently have winds around 100 and 110 km/h and a lot of rain here," she said.
Haynes, an Airbus A320 captain working for Spirit Airlines, had prepared for the storm by replacing all windows in her home with hurricane-impact glass.
"I purchased a generator and had an electrician wire my house to feed off the generator in the event of power failure," she said.
"Although I only landed Tuesday night from my annual New Zealand vacation, I stocked my house with water, New Zealand wine, beer and a little food also.
"I have a drawer full of candles and flashlights with extra batteries.
"I live on a waterway so I moved all of my patio furniture and plants in and secured everything on the side of the house."
Haynes said she flew an airline flight from New York City to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday night and the plane was full.
"No one seemed to be deterred by the approaching major hurricane, people more concerned with their home and family."
"I was actually scheduled to fly today but my home base airport is currently closed so the airline has removed me from my flights."
In Jacksonville, Ian Drinkwater was expecting heavy rain and string winds.
"It's very quiet weather wise but later tonight it's likely to get worse," he said.
I'm expecting maybe trees down and power outages caused by 80mph (128km/h) winds.
"The news media here appear to dramatise the events. We will see."
Ally Smith, in Melbourne, Florida, was waiting for the storm at her home, about 14km from the beach.
"The weather started deteriorating at about 7pm EST, about an hour ago."
Winds were picking up to about 40km/h with the worst winds to hit between midnight and 4am.
"The power will go out, it's just a case of when. Hopefully the roof stays."
Canterbury woman Jo Lynch, in a condominum in Orange County with fellow Kiwis Lauren Prill and Josh van Berkel, had spent the day with thousands of others enjoying Universal Studios, amid hot weather and a few showers.
The wind was just starting to pick up now, she said, and all hotels had been in lockdown from 5pm.
Van Berkel said every precaution was being taken, and local government and media had been proactive in letting people what to do in the worst case scenario.
"My understanding is the last time Florida had one that strength was about 12 years ago and it wasn't pretty," he posted on Facebook.
"Power out for days, trees etc uprooted, a lot of mess and cleaning up.
"The worst is due to hit tomorrow morning sometime, and the worst is due to be over by tomorrow afternoon sometime."
The group were near the coast "hunkered down in our apartment with an inappropriate amount of pizza and associated beverages" watching movies.
Matthew was expected to scrape nearly the entire length of Florida's Atlantic coast beginning Thursday evening local time.
From there, forecasters said it would most likely push along the coast of Georgia and
South Carolina before veering out to sea "perhaps even looping back toward Florida in the middle of next week as a tropical storm".
Millions of people in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were told to evacuate their homes, and interstate highways were turned into one-way routes to speed the exodus.
Florida alone accounted for roughly 1.5 million people.