09242017Headline:

Hurricane Matthew strengthens en-route to Florida, death toll hits 343

Hurricane Matthew is maintaining its strength as a powerful Category 4 storm as it roars towards the coast of Florida, forecasters say, while the death toll from widespread destruction in the Caribbean has risen to at least 343.

Matthew strengthened into a Category 4 storm on Thursday morning as it made its way through the Bahamas, but it slightly weakened late at night as it moved away from the islands and began to approach the east coast of Florida.

As of 11 p.m. ET on Thursday, the center of Hurricane Matthew was located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Freeport on Grand Bahama, or about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Matthew's maximum sustained winds are at 130 miles (215 kilometers) per hour with higher gusts. "Land interaction is likely to cause some weakening, and later in the period increasing shear should cause a more rapid decrease in winds," said Lixion Avila of the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Forecasters expect the hurricane to reach the east coast of Florida on early Friday morning, when Matthew should still be at least a Category 3 storm. The eye of the hurricane is likely to stay just offshore, but coastal areas will still experience extreme winds and potentially catastrophic storm surge.

Meanwhile, rescue workers in Haiti continued to assess the damage caused by Matthew in the impoverished nation. Local officials told Reuters late on Thursday that at least 339 people had been killed, raising the overall death toll to 343 after 4 deaths were reported in the Dominican Republic.

Among the fatalities are at least 90 people who were killed in the commune of Chantal alone, while 85 people were killed in Les Anglais and more than 50 in the town of Roche-a-Bateau. Authorities expect the death toll to rise further, with secondary effects to worsen the crisis, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in need of help..

"Damage to infrastructure has been extensive in a region where access is always difficult due to poor infrastructure," said Inés Brill of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC). "We anticipate an extremely challenging response logistically, to a major humanitarian crisis."

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