By Zach Fegenson
JUPITER, Florida – Hurricane Matthew, the fiercest Caribbean storm in nearly a decade, barreled toward the southeastern United States on Thursday after killing at least 140 people, mostly in Haiti, on its deadly northward march.
As Matthew blew through the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday, it was predicted to strengthen from a Category 3 to 4 storm en route to Florida’s Atlantic coast, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. The storm could either take direct aim at Florida or brush along the state’s coast on Thursday night.
Some 65 people were killed in Haiti and thousands were displaced after the storm smashed homes and inundated neighborhoods earlier in the week.
The National Hurricane Center extended its hurricane warning area farther north into Georgia and more than 12 million U.S. residents were under hurricane watches and warnings, according to the Weather Channel.
President Obama on Thursday issued an emergency declaration for Florida and ordered federal aid for the state.
Roads in Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina were jammed and gas stations and food stores ran out of supplies as the storm approached, carrying with it strong storm surges, heavy rain and sustained winds that accelerated overnight to about 125 miles per hour.
Matthew was 215 miles southeast of West Palm Beach at about 8 a.m. eastern time.
The damage could be “catastrophic” if the hurricane slammed directly into Florida, Governor Rick Scott warned, urging some 1.5 million people in the state to heed evacuation orders.
“If you’re reluctant to evacuate, just think about all the people who have been killed,” Scott told a news conference on Thursday. “Time is running out. This is clearly either going to have a direct hit or come right along the coast and we’re going to have hurricane-force winds.”
A storm surge of up to 9 feet was expected.
“Do not surf,” Scott said. “Do not go on the beach. This will kill you.”
The four U.S. states in the path of the hurricane declared states of emergency, a move empowering their governors to mobilize the National Guard.
It was too soon to predict where in the United States Matthew was likely to do the most damage, the Hurricane Center said.
Shelters in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina were opened for evacuees. Federal emergency response teams were coordinating with officials in all four states and stockpiling supplies, President Barack Obama said.
Closed schools, evacuated hospitals
Schools and airports across the region were closed on Thursday and some hospitals were evacuated, according to local media. Hundreds of flights were canceled in and out of the Florida cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, industry website Flightaware.com said.
Matthew was heading northwest at about 12 mph and was expected to continue on this track on Thursday, turning north-northwest on Thursday night, the National Hurricane Center said. The eye, or center, of the storm was expected to pass near Andros Island and New Providence in the northwestern Bahamas on Thursday.
In Nassau, the Bahamas capital located on New Providence, it was raining steadily on Thursday morning and high winds were bucking palm trees. Minor damage to roofs was reported but there was no flooding yet or reports of injuries.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Matthew, the strongest hurricane in the Caribbean since Felix struck Central America in 2007, had whipped Cuba and Haiti with 140 mph winds and torrential rain, pummeling towns and destroying livestock, crops and homes. The devastation in Haiti prompted authorities to postpone a presidential election.
In Florida, fuel stations posted “out of gas” signs after cars waited in long lines to fill up. Some residents prepared to wait out the storm and stocked up on water, milk and canned goods, emptying grocery store shelves, local media said.
Residents and business owners boarded up windows with plywood and hurricane shutters and placed sandbags to protect property against flooding.
“All boarded up and ready to bunker down. God be with us,” West Palm Beach resident Brad Gray said in a Tweet.
Scott said he activated 1,000 more members of the state National Guard on Thursday morning, bringing the total number of those summoned to 2,500. Another 4,000 stood ready to respond if needed, he said.
In Georgia, officials expanded a state of emergency to include 30 counties and urged thousands of residents in coastal areas to evacuate. Governor Nathan Deal issued a mandatory evacuation for people in six coastal counties east of Interstate 95, while people living west of the highway in those counties remained under a voluntary evacuation request.
Matthew was not expected to hit Georgia as hard as other states but it could still be “very dangerous,” said Lauren Merritt, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Atlanta. The brunt of the storm was expected to hit the state in the early hours of Saturday.