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Hurricane Matthew Could Be First Major Storm to Hit U.S. East Coast in Years

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Hurricane Matthew strengthened to become a category 4 storm Monday as it continued on its northward path toward Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, the National Hurricane Center said Monday.

Official also warned that the storm will almost certainly devastate Caribbean island nations and could be the first category 3 or above hurricane to hit the southeastern U.S. in a decade. The storm will likely bring a large downfall as well as strong winds to the U.S. East Coast between Thursday and Sunday even if it does not come inland.

“You always worry that there’s going to be complacency,” says Sean Sublette, a meteorologist at Climate Central. “Whether it hugs the coast or heads inland, anybody from Virginia down to South Florida has to be mindful.”

Read More: Why Climate Change Could Make Hurricane Impact Worse

Still, the greatest devastation is likely to come in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti where preparations for such an event are lacking. Experts expect high winds and mudslides to threaten the country, much of which is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake there that killed more than 100,000 people. Sustained wind speeds have already hit 140 miles per hour as the storm approaches the country and forecasters say they are expecting as much as 40 inches of rain in some areas .

The strength of storm—particularly after 10 years of relatively weak Atlantic storms—has caught the attention of meteorologists, but they say it is too soon to understand its implications for future weather. (It is worth noting that some storms like Hurricane Sandy have caused tremendous devastation without earning the major designation as a category 3 or above storm). Sublette described Hurricane Matthew as unusually large—particularly for a late-season storm—but not unprecedented.

Read More: These Are the Cities Most Vulnerable to the Next Katrina

The effects of climate change on hurricanes remains an open topic of discussion for many scientists. Many argue that global warming does not affect hurricane frequency but could make the biggest storms more extreme. Still, other factors related to global warming like sea level rise and storm surge can worsen the effects of hurricanes


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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com