A man walks in a flooded street on Tuesday after Hurricane Matthew passed through Les Cayes, Haiti. Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters

Its impacts could be vastly different whether it moves just a bit to the east or west.

Hurricane Matthew smashed into Haiti on Tuesday as the country’s most powerful storm in more than 5 decades, sowing still-unknown carnage in the “largest humanitarian event” since the 2010 earthquake.

On Tuesday night, the tempest bulldozed into Cuba in its second landfall at Category 4 strength. From there Matthew will turn toward the Bahamas and the U.S., where it’ll make things interesting for Southeast residents Thursday and Friday. A hurricane watch for southern Florida warns of “high” peril to life and property, with a “reasonable threat for hurricane force wind of 74 to 110 mph,” a potential for roof and tree damage, and an atmosphere “somewhat favorable for tornadoes.”

Just what impact Matthew will have on the U.S. is still up in the air. On the one hand, it’s not likely to dissipate much; after the Bahamas the “environment is favorable for the hurricane to maintain category 4 status” for at least another day, says the National Hurricane Center. On the other its predicted track straddles the lower East Coast, where a slight movement one way or the other could deliver vastly different consequences.

NHC/NOAA

Here’s more from the hurricane center:

When a hurricane is forecast to take a track roughly parallel to a coastline, as Matthew is forecast to do from Florida through South Carolina, it becomes very difficult to estimate impacts this far in advance. For example, only a small deviation of the track to the left of the NHC forecast could bring the core of a major hurricane onshore, while a small deviation to the right could keep all of the hurricane-force winds offshore. It will likely take another day or so for the potential impacts of Matthew in the United States to clarify.

Tropical storm or hurricane conditions could affect portions of Florida north of the current Hurricane Watch area, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina later this week or this weekend, even if the center of Matthew remains offshore. It is too soon to specify what, if any, direct impacts Matthew might have on the remainder of the U.S. east coast farther to the north. At a minimum, very dangerous beach and boating conditions are likely along much of the U.S. east coast later this week and weekend.

One thing that’s nearly certain is it will be a sopping time for the Southeast. Rainfall amounts off the coast of Florida could top 14 inches over three days, as seen in this precipitation forecast from the Weather Prediction Center:

WPC/NOAA

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